By ALEX DOMINGUEZ
Associated Press Writer
ESSEX, Md. (AP) Former Gov. Robert Ehrlich touted the "flush tax" passed during his tenure to fund sewage treatment plant upgrades, promised more "big ideas" and criticized current Gov. Martin O'Malley for using the fund for other purposes during a campaign stop Wednesday at a blue-collar stronghold in his former congressional district.
The former governor and congressman said his administration also shuffled funds around to balance the budget, but called the bay restoration fund one of the most important dedicated sources of revenue in the state "and it is something that we would think long and hard about taking dollars out of."
Ehrlich noted the fund was praised by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation when it passed, and foundation spokesman Tom Zolper confirmed before the event that the organization has supported the fund. On the use of the funds, Jenn Aiosa, the foundation's Maryland senior scientist, said state lawmakers have been told the fund will need about $500 million more to fund plant upgrades, and the $155 million that has been transferred is to be returned and is not expected to prevent any plants from being upgraded.
"Whether the transfer was made or not, we would still have a deficit," Aiosa said. However, she warned that "if any effort is made to make that shift permanent, we will raise a ruckus."
A recent poll showed O'Malley and Ehrlich in a tight race for the State House, with the economy on top of voters' minds. While the environment trailed far behind on the list of concerns for poll respondents, neither side is willing to concede anything in such a tight race.
In Annapolis, O'Malley responded to the criticism, saying
"I think the organizations that evaluate our environmental records are probably the best objective party for you to turn to on that, and I look forward to having a conversation with him about the future of our state."
The League of Conservation Voters, meanwhile, issued a statement Wednesday saying O'Malley has had to make tough decisions during difficult economic times, but "he has done a better job of addressing environmental needs during his four years as governor."
Ehrlich, speaking at a waterfront restaurant, also noted his administration passed a charter school bill that he said has saved children from failing schools. And he urged the enthusiastic crowd to support him and a host of like-minded candidates to bring competence back to state government.
The former governor also promised more "big ideas" like the bay restoration fund and charter schools.
"We like doing big things, we like big ideas, sometimes counterintuitive ideas as well," Ehrlich said.
"We like big ideas that capture the imagination of Marylanders, that work. The whole idea, obviously, behind this is to test the science. It's not just good enough to spend the money. Taxpayers are very acclimated to having money spent, they want to see results as well."
Ehrlich also said he was encouraged by the poll.
Clearly, it's a tight race. What makes us feel real good about the race so far is that he's gone almost uniformly negative with some pretty goofy ads, obviously, that haven't worked very well," Ehrlich said.
"And we haven't spent a dollar on advertising yet. Yet we're tied, so that bodes well, pretty well, for our campaign."
More than 100 turned out to see Ehrlich, who spoke in front of boats decorated with campaign signs.
Neighbor Bill Wolf said he came out to support Ehrlich "because he's not Martin O'Malley."
"I just don't think he's done anything for the state," Wolf said of O'Malley, criticizing the current governor for raising the sales tax to help balance the state budget.
Lise Criswell, a volunteer with the Back River Restoration Committee, also attended the event, saying she lived in Baltimore when O'Malley was mayor of the city, and has not been happy with his performance in either office.
"I just feel like Bob Ehrlich is more connected to the people than Governor O'Malley," Criswell said
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)