(Note: This article appeared in the inaugural issue of Center Maryland Magazine.)
By Barry Rascovar
It is often true that legislative reforms require a second round of revisions to make them workable. That’s the case with the misnamed “rain tax.”
Passed in 2012, this stormwater remediation measure attacks a troubling problem – pollution of the Chesapeake Bay from pet waste, sediment, fertilizers, pesticides and auto fluids. Storms wash this scum off urban and suburban streets, parking lots and rooftops. It winds up in the bay.
This is a huge concern for those who treasure Maryland’s most precious resource.
For instance, stormwater pollutants account for 37 percent of nitrogen in the Magothy River, 94 percent of excess phosphorus, and virtually all sediment and bacterial contaminants.
Fifteen percent of the bay’s nitrogen stems from urban and suburban storm runoff.
The 2012 statute requires Baltimore City and nine counties to enact a fee for stormwater improvements. It’s part of the state’s compliance with Washington’s “pollution diet” for the bay.
Little controversy surrounded the 2012 bill, but as implementation day neared in mid-2013, Republicans raised a ruckus. In a slick PR move, they started calling it the “rain tax.”
Frederick County Commissioners set their stormwater fee at a symbolic penny. Carroll County Commissioners defied the state entirely.
Other Republicans played politics, too. Laura Neuman, the new Anne Arundel executive, vetoed a stormwater fee (it was overridden by the council). She is in a tough race to win a full term.
David Craig, the Harford County executive running for governor, wants to abolish his county’s stormwater tax – though he introduced the bill and signed it into law. He also wants to wipe out the state law, a sine qua non for GOP candidates this year.
Like it or not, legislators find this issue before them in the current session.
No politician wants to endorse an unpopular tax in an election year but Democrats are in a bind. Environmentalism is a key part of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s national campaign and Democratic lawmakers won’t renege on their commitment to the bay.
The trick is making the law more palatable.
Republicans will have a field day protesting Democratic amendments, yet they know it’s all sound and fury.
Revisions could lead to a uniform stormwater fee in the 10 jurisdictions – such as a surcharge on the state property tax – or making the counties and Baltimore responsible for contributing a set amount to remediation projects but letting local officials decide how to raise the money.
In the end, a less incendiary version of the “rain tax” will pass. There’s too much at stake for O’Malley and Democratic lawmakers to back down.
Barry Rascovar, formerly a columnist for The Baltimore Sun and the Gazette Newspapers, writes regularly at www.politicalmaryland.com