Brochin pushes 'rain tax' repeal, fracking ban

Green straddle: Baltimore County's Sen. Brochin pushes 'rain tax' repeal, fracking ban

Much of the talk in Annapolis so far has been on the budget, but two hotly disputed environmental issues loom.  Bill have already been introduced to repeal of the so-called "rain tax" and to ban "fracking," or hydraulic fracturing, for natural gas in western Marylnd.

Both were put in by the same lawmaker: Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat known for his independent, if not maverick, stances.

He's actually aligned himself with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan on the "rain tax," the derogatory term critics have pinned on the storm-water management fees that Baltimore city and the state's nine largest counties were required to impose on property owners under a 2012 law. Hogan repeatedly criticized the fees during last year's election campaign and has vowed to seek repeal.

Brochin's stance has alienated environmentalists, who backed him in his fight to win reelection last year over Democratic and Republican challengers - in part because of his earlier support of the storm-water management fees.

"We did endorse him,'' acknowledged Jen Brock-Cancellieri, deputy director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. "We were disappointed in the general election to hear him campaigning about rolling back the polluted runoff fee."

Storm-water runoff from streets, buildings and parking lots is a significant source of Chesapeake Bay pollution, and the only one that continues to grow as development spreads, federal and state officials say.

Brochin says he's not against cleaning up the bay, but  his earlier support of the law was a mistake.

"Sometimes we don't get it right down here," he said, adding he wasn't aware of how the fees would be charged or spent.

"It's not fair the way it's administered," he said.  A business owner in Frederick County may pay little or nothing, he said, while the fee charged a similar business in Baltimore County could be nearly as much as its property tax.

Jurisdictions imposed varying fees ranging from as little as $12.50 a year for homeowners in Harford County up to thousands of dollars annually for owners of large buildings and parking lots in Baltimore city and Baltimore County. The charges were meant to cover the locality's costs for projects meant to control polluted runoff from streets, buildings and parking lots.

Frederick County, however, chose to protest the fee by charging each of its property owners one cent a year. Carroll County refused to charge anything, insisting it would set aside enough from general funds to control polluted runoff in its borders. And recently, Harford County repealed its fee, while Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has proposed reducing the fees there.

Brochin said the fee disparity between localities puts businesses at a competitive disadvantage. Brochin said he's seen bills indicating some small businesses have to pay storm-water fees ranging from $3,000 to $10,000 a year.

"It's not fair that in Baltimore County you have to pay this tax, and in Carroll, Frederick or Harford, they get to use existing funds," he said. "I think it should be repealed, and I think we need to figure out a new way to do it."

On fracking, Brochin's bill comes as Gov. Larry Hogan weighs whether to go ahead with sweeping new drilling regulations proposed by the O'Malley adminisitration.  After a three-year review ordered by former Gov. Martin O'Malley, state officials concluded that there were significant health and environmental risks involved, but they could be reduced through tighter oversight.

Brochin said he's been swayed by documentaries and news reports he's seen about problems from drilling in other states, including contaminated wells, spills, air pollution and even earthquakes from injecting large quantities of drilling waste back into the ground.

"I can't believe we would do something like this," he said, adding that he believes "this needs so much more study and so much more looking at."

Supporters of gas extraction contend the O'Malley rules are too strict and will discourage drilling. But many environmentalists and health advocates contend there's no evidence that fracking can be done safely, and continuing research is raising new concerns. 

Environmental groups are for a fracking moratorium, but they're coalescing around another bill, not yet introduced, that would limit it to eight years. They say that's a suitable delay to gather more information on health concerns raised by drilling. 

Brock-Cancellieri said activists will be fighting any bills to roll back the storm-water fees, including Brochin's.  But on fracking and other issues, she said, "We’re happy to work with him on places where we agree."

 

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