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Proposed state budget includes up to $300K for Berlin farm involved in pollution lawsuit

ANNAPOLIS — The state could pay as much as $300,000 of a Berlin poultry farmer’s legal fees under an amended version of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s budget proposal, which received preliminary approval from the House of Delegates on Wednesday.

Hudson Farm

Poultry farmer Alan Hudson, right his daughter Sawyer, wife Kristin and son Ethan in December following their legal victory in the Perdue pollution case. (File photo)

O’Malley’s budget, unveiled in January, included about $37.4 billion in spending for the fiscal year that begins in July. Since then, the House Appropriations Committee made 146 amendments to the governor’s plan, cutting costs to reduce spending to about $36.98 billion.

But as the full House debated the amended budget — House Bill 100 — Del. Norman H. Conway, a Lower Eastern Shore Democrat who chairs the Appropriations Committee, offered one final amendment that would let the Board of Public Works pay $300,000 to cover court costs incurred by the Hudson Farm, which was named in a lawsuit, along with Perdue Farms Inc., in which the New York-based Waterkeeper Alliance Inc. alleged violations of the Clean Water Act.

A federal judge held in December that neither Salisbury-based Perdue nor the Hudson Farm, which contracts with Perdue to raise chickens, violated the act by polluting the Pocomoke River and Chesapeake Bay.

Conway said the lawsuit “did carry this family almost to the brink of losing everything they had.”

The House’s overwhelming, bipartisan support of the amendment was something of an apology from state lawmakers, many of whom were angry last year that the Hudson family was targeted by a lawsuit in which the state-funded University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic represented the plaintiff. O’Malley himself wrote in a letter to the law school’s dean last year that said the litigation was “a misuse of state resources.”

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said lawmakers didn’t think it was fair that a small family farm was pitted against the well-funded Waterkeeper Alliance, run by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Busch said it was “precedent-setting” to have such language in the budget.

Conway’s amendment was adopted after a voice vote — the “yeas” were far louder than the “nays” — but one Montgomery County Democrat who voted for the amendment said there should not be so much anger directed toward a law clinic that is bound by the same ethical guidelines that bind every private law firm.

“The fact that we subsidize them as a state is irrelevant,” Del. Kirill Reznik said. “I am appalled that we are taking these extra legislative actions … take it up with the Bar or the Court of Appeals.”

Four amendments were also proposed by Republican lawmakers — including one that would have forced the state to fund local highway user revenues that were taken from the Transportation Trust Fund during the recession and another that have cut spending across the board — but the changes were easily rejected by Democrats during what was a quiet debate by budget bill standards.

With state revenue rebounding following the recession, O’Malley for the first time in years did not ask lawmakers to raise taxes as part of his initial legislative agenda. That will change this week, when a House committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on legislation that would raise Maryland’s gas tax to fund transportation projects.

The Appropriations Committee’s 146 amendments, which cut a little more than $400 million from O’Malley’s original budget proposal, were taken in small pieces. The committee decided to withhold a combined $250,000 from the state Department of Business and Economic Development and Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation until the agencies show they have addressed issues identified in audits performed this year.

The Maryland State Lottery and Gaming Control Agency, meanwhile, had $366,000 cut from its budget after O’Malley’s office put a halt to the agency’s plan to create a website where gamblers could purchase and play lottery tickets. The House further amended the lottery budget to require that the agency solicit the input of lottery agents — retailers who sell tickets — and hold a public hearing before drawing up regulations to create an Internet lottery system.

Senate Bill 272, unanimously approved by the Senate last month in response to the protest of retailers that this expansion of gambling would be harmful to their businesses, would take away authority of the lottery to create such regulations. The House Ways and Means Committee — cool to the idea — has not scheduled a hearing for the bill.

With the bill now closed to amendment by House lawmakers, O’Malley’s budget still supports the governor’s primary priorities, including record funding for education, further narrowing of what was once a nearly $2 billion structural deficit, and promoting a number of industries by offering tax breaks to film production, biotechnology and cyber security firms.

The governor’s budget still includes $1.5 million to pay for ongoing studies of hydraulic fracturing, the controversial natural gas drilling technique colloquially known as fracking. Drilling permits have not been issued — and natural gas companies haven’t come knocking on Maryland’s door — since O’Malley issued an executive order in 2011 that called for safety and best practice studies of fracking before drilling.

Lawmakers also gave preliminary approval on Wednesday to companion legislation, the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act, which balances the budget’s spending with revenue.