ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The Maryland House of Delegates amended the state budget on Wednesday to make up to $300,000 available to help a farm family pay its legal bills after it was sued unsuccessfully over alleged poultry pollution.
Delegate Norman Conway, D-Wicomico, said the unusual move was appropriate to help the family of Alan Hudson in Berlin on the Eastern Shore. The case, which was filed in federal court in 2010, prompted criticism from Gov. Martin O'Malley and state lawmakers in both parties.
An environmental group alleged that chicken litter was being discharged from the Hudson Farm in Berlin into a tributary of the Pocomoke River. A federal judge tossed out the lawsuit in December, chastising the Waterkeeper Alliance for not conducting adequate sampling. The group was represented by the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the House, this became such an issue for the farming community of our state and even more so for the Eastern Shore," Conway said. "This family was put under tremendous stress when it should have been ended with a decision by the Maryland Department of Environment — and it wasn't — but it did carry this family almost to the brink of losing everything they had."
The budget bill amendment, which was approved on a voice vote, would enable the state's Board of Public Works to make up to $300,000 available to the family based on documented legal expenses and court costs.
After accepting the amendment, the House went on to give preliminary approval to the state's $37 billion budget, which is not feeling the pressures it has in recent years in the aftermath of the recession.
However, uncertainty about how automatic federal cuts will play out prompted O'Malley to increase the amount in the state's Rainy Day Fund from 5 percent to 6 percent of the state's $16 billion general fund. Combined with about $200 million in general fund balance, the state has about $1.1 billion in cash and reserves.
The House is working on O'Malley's budget proposal first this year. The Senate will take up the budget legislation later.
In a prelude to what will surely be a vigorous debate on a separate measure to raise taxes on gasoline, Delegate Susan Krebs tried to amend the budget bill to repay about $1 billion in local highway user money that has been used to plug budget holes in recent years. Krebs, R-Carroll, said the state should commit to paying back the money over three years for road repairs before seeking more money from the public.
But Delegate John Bohanan, D-St. Mary's, said the state can't afford the level of highway user money for counties, and he noted that some counties budgeted nothing for roads during the period the state was being asked to pay back.
The amendment failed on a vote largely on party lines in the Democrat-controlled House.
Maryland is currently on track to run out of money for any new transportation projects in five years.
The Democratic governor is proposing a transportation revenue package to establish a new sales tax on gasoline and other measures to raise hundreds of millions of dollars a year to fund a backlog of transportation projects. The proposal, made public last week, was worked out during negotiations with House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert.
The plan would apply a new 2 percent sales tax on gasoline starting in July. The tax would increase to 4 percent in July 2014. The proposal also would reduce the current excise tax by 5 cents, from 23.5 cents to 18.5 cents, and it would then link the excise tax to the consumer price index, so the tax would rise to keep up with inflation in future years.