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Maryland’s “Rain Tax” Gets Flushed

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The Maryland General Assembly’s annual session ended at Midnight  on Monday with both good and bad news on environmental issues.

On the negative side, stormwater pollution control fees mandated by a 2012 state law to clean up the Chesapeake Bay were attacked as an unfair “tax on rain.”

In the end, lawmakers voted 47-0 in the state senate, and 138-1 in the house, to approve a bill by Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller that would eliminate the requirement that the state’s most heavily populated counties and Baltimore impose stormwater pollution control fees.   

“This rain water tax is stopping businesses from coming to Baltimore County,” one state lawmaker shouted over his colleagues during the late-night debate.  “It’s stopping from putting people back to work in blue collar neighborhoods.”

The fees range from about $40 per year for single family homes in some areas to thousands of dollars for car dealerships with large parking lots.  The fees are imposed on blacktop and parking lots that contribute toxic runoff pollution to streams.   Maryland’s large jurisdictions, since 2010, have been under a mandate from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take an increasing amount of responsibility for managing their stormwater and filtering out pollutants before they reach the Chesapeake Bay.

Monday’s killing of the “rain tax” mandate was a victory for anti-tax advocates and Republicans, and it could have been a major blow to Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts.  But Democrats and environmentalists took the lemon and made lemonade.

Advocates convinced Senate President Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch to modify the bill so that it requires cities and suburban counties to come up with alternative funding mechanisms to pay for stormwater pollution control projects.  The local governments must now file annual reports on their progress to the Maryland Department of the Environment. And the agency can now fine local governments $10,000 per day if they don’t meet EPA pollution limits meant to protect the bay.

The solution is not perfect. It relies on vigilance from a state agency that historically been reluctant to crack down on local governments.  And some jurisdictions (including Baltimore and Harford counties) are now cutting back or eliminating fees that are a major source of funding to build pollution control projects.

But Jen Brock-Cancellieri, deputy director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters,  said that – in the end – the modified bill will actually improve efforts to reduce pollution by increasing accountability and oversight of local governments.

 “Despite a new administration, and over 60 new legislators, the 2015 Maryland General Assembly heard the tens of thousands of conservation-minded voters who contacted them this session and ensured Maryland is healthier and a more prosperous place for our families and communities,” Brock-Cancellieri said. “They protected the Chesapeake Bay and our local waters, and they chose to promote clean energy. We thank them.”

On the clean energy front, lawmakers approved a bill that will allow the Tesla electric car company to sell its zero-emission vehicles from four new dealerships in Maryland owned by the company.  Dealerships owned directly car companies in the past had been prohibited.

The General Assembly also approved a two-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. 

“The Chesapeake Climate Action Network and other advocates are extremely excited about this win,” said Shilpa Joshi, Maryland Campaign Coordinator for the climate organization.  “It’s the culmination of years and years of work. And it’s particular testament to the strength and power that the western Maryalnd communities have. They have ramped up their fight against fracking.”

In other areas, legislators approved a law that will require boaters to wash their vessels to prevent spread of invasive species into Deep Creek Lake and other lakes and rivers.  Lawmakers worked with Governor Hogan to tighten up the governor’s regulations on poultry manure pollution in the bay.

 In the category of failed legislation, a bill to protect bees by restricting the sale of insecticides called neonicotinoids did not make make it out of committee. Also dead is a bill that would have required drillers to carry insurance policies to cover up to $10 million in potential liability costs per well for cleaning up spills and damage they cause to roads and properties.

Among all the issues, however, the “rain tax” was the most politically charged.

Harford County executive Barry Glassman said both he and Govenor Hogan were elected in November in part because they campaigned for repeal of the unpopular tax.

 “Harford County is fairly rural conservative county, so the rain tax mandate was never popular here,” Glassman said.

Harford County in January voted to eliminate its annual $12.50 fees for homeowners (which had previously been slashed from $125 per year).  But in the county's budget for the upcoming year, the county will spend about $6 million for stormwater pollution control projects – by far the most the county has spent in years, Glassman said.

That sounds like a step forward. But where is the county getting the money?  They are taking the cash from their sewer and water maintenance fund.  If the county ends up investing less in sewer lines, this may not be good for water quality, in the end.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.