By Barry Rascovar
March 24, 2015 — Opponents, especially Gov. Larry Hogan Jr., deceptively call it the “rain tax.” But the name and the issue are about as phony as a three-dollar bill.
Hogan used his mischaracterization of the stormwater remediation fee to great effect in winning the governorship. “Why they’re even taxing the rain!” he exclaimed in a highly effective TV ad.
It’s actually a broad user fee based on how much stormwater pollution flows from roofs and parking surfaces — runoff that can cause great harm if it ends up in the Chesapeake Bay.
Hogan turned this into a political anti-tax, anti-government crusade. For him, this unconscionable levy showed the overreach of the O’Malley administration, which taxed anything that moved to fund an ever-growing list of do-gooder social programs.
His propaganda pitch worked; now Hogan is governor.
He pledged to eliminate the “rain tax.” but It isn’t working out that way.
Here’s a fact Hogan never told voters: Even if he could eliminate the “rain tax,” that step wouldn’t lower state or county spending by a penny.
Indeed, wiping out the “rain tax” would have zero impact on Hogan’s state budget. Repeat: zero impact.
It would affect some county taxpayers who now are assessed a stormwater remediation fee on their annual property tax bill. They could see their county taxes lowered minimally.
Here’s another catch: In each of the 10 jurisdictions affected by the “rain tax,” eliminating the levy could force county officials to make cuts in other programs like schools and public works.
It would be a lose-lose scenario.
That’s because these counties and Baltimore City are under a federal mandate to reduce polluted stormwater pouring into the bay. With or without the “rain tax,” they are required to continue paying for costly stream restoration and other cleanup efforts.
For example, Baltimore County spends $22 million a year on its remediation work. That money comes from the “rain tax.”
Eliminate the levy and the county still must come up with $22 million for those environmental-protection projects. That’s about the cost of a new elementary school.
In other words, it’s a zero-sum game.
If Hogan were to get his way, county governments would be squeezed to find money for those mandated environmental activities. Other programs financed by the counties would take the hit, be it schools, government-worker pay raises, road repairs or social programs.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz already has made a symbolic reduction in his county’s stormwater remediation fee, lowering the levy by one-third. He found roughly $8 million of savings in his budget that now will be used for these anti-pollution projects.
The county’s stormwater remediation work continues unimpeded. In future years, though, it could become increasingly difficult to find that extra money without cutting back in other areas.
On the state level, symbolism is the name of the game, too.
Senate President Mike Miller, the most astute political mind in Annapolis, came up with the ideal Democratic response to Republican Hogan’s “no rain tax” demand.
Miller won unanimous Senate approval for his bill that makes the county remediation fee optional.
If Frederick County, Harford County or Carroll County wants to get rid of the fee totally, they are free to do so. But they still have to ante up millions to finance a long list of remediation projects.
That burden remains.
Indeed, Miller’s bill requires those counties to specify their remediation efforts and identify how they will be funded. Failure to do so could lead to a loss of state dollars.
Smarter county officials, who understand the value of spreading the tax burden for these anti-pollution efforts, could continue their fees under Miller’s bill. They won’t have to limit other county programs to make room for mandated remediation projects.
Whether Miller’s “rain tax” option makes it through the House of Delegates is in doubt. Some Democrats there want to keep the current fee in place, despite the political advantage it gives Hogan and his conservative allies.
It’s one of the more curious debates to grip Annapolis in years.
No state taxes are involved.
No county saves a penny if Hogan gets his way.
The stormwater anti-pollution programs must continue — unless a county wants to get sued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Miller’s compromise bill offers a sensible way out for everyone. That’s why Hogan has thrown his support behind it.
Regardless of the outcome, this phony “rain tax” war will continue. Hogan will milk it for all it is worth — even if the facts aren’t on his side.