As a further complication, O'Malley administration officials have also pledged to upgrade smaller sewage plants to meet the state's pollution-reduction quota under the federally directed bay cleanup effort. .

A task force set up by O'Malley to look at bay funding needs, as well as potential limitations on septic systems, recommended gradually tripling the flush fee, raising it to $5 a month at first and then to $7.50 by 2015. The panel proposed using the extra revenue to help local governments pay for retrofitting storm drains and other unfunded projects to reduce polluted rainfall washing off city and suburban streets and buildings.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee and co-chair of the task force, said she has not completely given up on tripling the fee. She said she's concerned about how local governments are going to raise all the funds needed to reduce their polluted storm runoff.

Environmental activists, meanwhile, have urged the state to quadruple the fee to $10 a month, arguing that even $7.50 a month won't raise enough for local governments to afford all the storm-water pollution control efforts that are being required of them under the bay cleanup plan.

"We don't think it's enough to address all the water issues out there," Alison Prost, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said of the administration's proposal to double the fee.

A leading Republican lawmaker, meanwhile, is arguing against any increase. Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell of St. Mary's County, the House GOP leader, said that with the economy still lagging, "now is not the time to be raising taxes and fees." He contended that the collective bite of the various tax and fee increases proposed by O'Malley would be "crushing when people are struggling to make ends meet."

"We just need to take a deep breath," O'Donnell said. "The first priority is to get our economy healthy again." Only then, he added, "we can deal with some of these other important issues."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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