Baltimore Sun Editorial Defends Program Open Space

A March 9 Baltimore Sun editorial argued that Maryland’s Program Open Space Program (POS) has been very successful and warned against permanently altering the traditional funding mechanism of POS (the real estate transfer tax).  For the last five years, POS has not received money from the transfer tax and instead has been funded by bonds, with annual allocations phased-in over a multi-year period (ie one year’s worth of POS funding would be allotted out over 3 years).

When it comes to preserving land and creating public parks, few government programs have succeeded like Maryland’s Program Open Space. It has been one of the state’s most effective weapons in the cause of protecting the environment and off-setting the worst effects of poorly-managed sprawl development in the cities, suburbs and rural areas.  …

For a half-decade, the state has been diverting transfer tax income to finance the budget by temporarily amending the law for one year at a time. In return, Gov. Martin O’Malley, with the legislature’s blessing, has financed Program Open Space projects in the capital budget, borrowing money to pay for such things as playgrounds and conservation easements or buying development rights from farmers.

Other pay-as-you-go programs have been replaced with bonds, too, but Program Open Space, on both the local and state level, has been by far the biggest target for this with hundreds of millions of dollars involved.

At the height of the recession, that made a lot of sense. But five years later, it’s not clear that Maryland is going to end this practice any time soon. In theory, the state is supposed to stop the diversions by 2020, but some environmentalists now have their doubts — in large part because Governor O’Malley chose not to include any cash for Program Open Space this year.  …

Since it was created in 1969, Program Open Space has invested about $2 billion in preserving Maryland land, but it has also been raided in the ballpark (surely an apt metaphor) of $1 billion. Restoring the program needs to be a higher priority for the current General Assembly or else future occupants of the State House will wonder, if such spending can be delayed for a decade, why not cut it altogether?

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