Credit: File photo

Call it a tale of two legislators – two of the most influential in the Maryland General Assembly when it comes to environmental policy in general and legislation to combat climate change.

For Del. Kumar Barve (D-Rockville), chair of the House of Delegates’ Environment and Transportation Committee, it’s the worst of times in Montgomery County in terms of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “Montgomery County, under this administration, talks a good game but they’re not doing much of anything of significance,” Barve declared in a recent interview, taking a swipe at County Executive Marc Elrich.

Several minutes later, he turned up the rhetorical heat – alluding to the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022, which he helped to guide to passage in Annapolis a couple of months ago. Thanks to that law, Barve asserted the state now possesses “the levers in place to force incompetent county governments, like Montgomery County, to behave right.”

But not long before Barve’s comments, Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s County) – the other major player in the process that brought the Climate Solutions Now Act to passage – appeared at Elrich’s weekly media video briefing and voiced starkly different sentiments.

“I’m glad for the work that local jurisdictions like Montgomery are pursuing,” Pinsky said, adding: “Hopefully, Montgomery County – who’s leading the way in many places – can be a laboratory. They can share with the state what works and what doesn’t, so that we can refine the [Climate Solutions Now Act] and make it more aggressive.”

Asked late last week in an interview to assess how well Montgomery County is doing on combating climate change compared to other jurisdictions, Pinsky – who chairs the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee – replied, “I think they’ve been pretty far ahead of the curve. They’ve been working on [energy performance] building codes for a year. They’ve looked at buses and transportation in terms of making it green.”

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Elrich cited similar examples in firing back at Barve. “I’m just baffled by his comments – offended, too,” Elrich said in an interview, declaring: “I don’t think Kumar has any understanding of what we’re actually doing. And I don’t think anybody is doing as much as we are.”

Elrich – who occupied the left flank of the County Council for three terms prior to his election as executive – took aim at Barve, senior member of Montgomery County’s 32-person state legislative delegation, as “a more conservative corporate Democrat … I don’t think he’d hold a candle to Pinsky in terms of the environment. Pinsky obviously has a very different view of what we’re doing in Montgomery County.”

As is often the case in politics, differing sets of personal relationships appear to be coming into play in Barve’s and Pinsky’s contrasting perspectives.

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Barve, first elected to the House of Delegates in 1990, has had a close relationship with now-County Council Member Tom Hucker, who served two terms in Annapolis before his 2014 election to a district County Council seat. Hucker, to the surprise of many, announced last summer he was exploring a bid for county executive; Barve gave him a full-throated endorsement, saying at the time, “I think we need a new county executive, and Tom would be the perfect guy.”

Hucker – after a nine-month campaign in which he was sharply critical of Elrich’s management of the county – in April dropped out of the executive race in favor of a run for an at-large council seat, leaving Elrich with two major rivals for the Democratic nomination: businessman David Blair and Council Member Hans Riemer. Barve has not endorsed another candidate since Hucker’s withdrawal, and it’s unclear he will do so before the July 19 primary.

Pinsky, meanwhile, has known Elrich for more than a quarter of a century, when he worked for the Montgomery County Education Association and Elrich, then a Takoma Park elementary school teacher, was active in that union. First elected to the Maryland Senate in 1994, Pinsky represents a Hyattsville-based district just across the border between Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

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Asked last week whether he has endorsed Elrich, Pinsky said: “It’s not my county, but I’m supporting Marc. I’ve contributed to him.”

Also playing into Barve’s sentiments toward Elrich is last year’s debate over legislation, sponsored by Riemer and Hucker, to open a portion of the county’s Agricultural Reserve to solar power arrays. Elrich opposed the legislation, and advocates of the original proposal complained that the final version contained several crippling amendments.

“The county [passed] a law that functionally terminates any consideration of ground-level, at-grade solar in the Ag Reserve,” charged Barve who authored a March 2021 Washington Post op-ed column decrying the council’s vote.

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And in a shot at Elrich, Barve asserted, “The problem is NIMBYs like him who don’t want to build anything anywhere. And that goes for housing as well as solar” – a reference to the “Not In My Back Yard” label often aimed at Elrich by critics.

The Climate Solutions Now Act steered through the General Assembly by a combination of Pinsky and Barve earlier this year commits the state to a 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2031, followed by a goal of net-zero emissions by 2045. “The Maryland Climate Change Commission felt 50 percent was a safe goal to reach by 2030, and we bumped it up to 60 percent because we really wanted to cause ourselves to stretch,” Barve said.

Elrich, however, characterized Barve as “the chair of the environment committee who weakened the bill that Pinsky introduced. What we needed him to do was actually to bring his bill with Montgomery County’s legislation on trying to get to zero by 2035” – 10 years earlier than the state’s goal. A 2017 resolution adopted by the County Council also calls for an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2027 from a baseline measurement in 2005.

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Pinsky also was critical of the version of the Climate Solutions Now Act when it emerged from the House of Delegates. “I will support it,” he was quoted by Maryland Matters as saying at the time, while charging: “It is not the bold step forward that I had hoped. I think the efforts to weaken it and give in to the special interests were woeful in the House.”

Pinsky has since taken a more upbeat view. “I had some frustrations and disappointments,” he told Bethesda Beat. “But after taking a step back and a breath, it’s a very good bill – it’s one of the better ones in the country.”

And while Elrich recently dismissed the state’s less ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals as “the road to an environmental disaster,” Pinsky took a more measured view.

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“If we can hit carbon neutral by 2045, I’ll be happy,” he said. “I’d love for us to be able to move faster, but even the number in our bill is going to be a heavy lift.”

He cautioned: “The fundamental issue is what policies and strategies we’re going to follow to achieve those reductions. And I can tell you this – we’ve done the low-hanging fruit.”

Louis Peck, a contributing editor for Bethesda Magazine, can be reached at: lou.peck@bethesdamagazine.com.

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