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MD Climate Legislation Sunk By Clash Between Democrats

MD general 2021 assembly baltimore sun.jpg
The Baltimore Sun
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The Maryland General Assembly wrapped up its annual 90-day legislative session at midnight on Monday. The tradition was altered this year by pandemic safety protocols, such as masks and video-only legislative hearings.

The clerk announced at 11:59 pm: “Thank you Mr. President. I move that the Senate of Maryland stand adjourned, Sine Die!

Senate President Bill Ferguson said: “Without objection, so ordered! Stay safe. Wear your mask. Get thee vaccine.”

In terms of environmental legislation, the session was a mixture of failure and success. A major, groundbreaking piece of climate legislation – the Climate Change Solutions Now Act of 2021 – collapsed in last-minute disagreements between Democratic committee chairs in the House and Senate.

However, lawmakers passed legislation that will ensure continued funding for maintaining mass transit in Maryland, despite threats of sharp cuts from the Hogan Administration. Other bills that passed will require the state to plan better for increased rainfall caused by climate change; and ban the intentional releases of balloons, which litter the Chesapeake Bay.

State Delegate Brooke Lierman, a Democrat from Baltimore, was a sponsor of the mass transit funding bill.

“I think it was a pretty big session for the environment,” Lierman said. “I think especially given the understanding of the intersection of environmental sustainability and public health; and given that we have been spending this whole year thinking about public health, and ensuring that people live in healthy communities, people understood the importance of passing many of these environmental bills.”

The biggest clashes came over the Climate Change Solutions Now bill. A strong version of the legislation was introduced by State Senator Paul Pinsky, a Democrat from Prince George’s County and chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. Pinsky’s bill passed the Senate by vote of 34 to 11. The legislation would have required the state to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent by 2030; achieve net zero emissions by 2045; and require large new buildings and some new schools to adopt energy efficiency and clean energy requirements.

However, in the House, state Delegate Kumar Barve of Montgomery Country, chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, and allies, thought Pinsky’s bill went too far. They wanted more modest pollution reduction targets, and opposed the mandates for real estate developers and schools.

Senator Pinsky said he was frustrated after negotiations between the Senate and House broke down.

“Unfortunately, when the House got around to paying attention to it, they stripped about 75 percent of the bill out, and they sent it back to us,” Pinsky said. “And we didn’t receive it until Saturday, with two days left in the session. So I just don’t think there was the urgency or the interest in passing legislation that pushed the envelope, which Maryland, a very vulnerable state, needs.”

Delegate Barve did not respond to a request for an interview for this program. But the vice chairman of the House environment committee, State Delegate Dana Stein of Baltimore County, said he was disappointed because he also wanted a strong climate bill.

But Stein said a silver lining was that two important parts of the climate bill – mandating that the state plant five million trees and buy only electric buses to reduce greenhouse gas pollution – were pulled out and passed separately.

“If you clean the bus system, electrify it, you are really going to make the air – especially in urban areas – much better,” Stein said.

Maybe the political climate for climate legislation will warm next year.

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The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.