End 'rain tax' ridicule rap, repeal and replace law

Time to repeal and replace Maryland's ridiculed rain tax

I don't know about anyone else around here, but I am sick of hearing about the "rain tax," which is the clever shorthand the snarkosphere came up with three years ago to describe something that takes a lot more than two words to explain.

It's actually a stormwater management fee. Maryland property owners in Baltimore and nine counties are supposed to pay the fee to finance public projects to arrest some of the filthy stormwater that runs across our oil-splattered parking lots and chemically fertilized lawns, down our streets and driveways, into drainage systems and, eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. Stormwater is a serious source of pollution, and the Environmental Protection Agency says we need to get it under control to restore the bay.

This problem is not hard to understand or appreciate.

Nor is the idea of a fee. We have a problem; we need money to pay for the solution — a new generation of "green" projects that allow stormwater to seep into the ground instead of flowing across impervious surfaces, carrying all kinds of pollutants into licks and creeks on the way to tributaries of the Chesapeake.

We live in a time when big fixes are needed, and this is one of them.

But what do we get from politicians?

We get a constant argument over a "rain tax."

Republicans, led by Maryland's new governor, have beaten this thing to death. They're the ones who disingenuously call it "a tax on rain." They say the special fee is not needed, that it's an awful burden that ought to be repealed. Republicans might not like the stormwater law, but it certainly has provided them with a cheap way to grandstand as taxpayer heroes.

Democrats have tried to defend the 2012 law that required the stormwater management fees, and they've done a lousy job of it. Now, giving into pressure from the "rain tax" crowd, one of their leaders in the General Assembly has offered to tweak and weaken the law.

Here's my suggestion: Repeal and replace it.

I know: That's what Mitt Romney said about the Affordable Care Act. But that doesn't make repeal-and-replace a bad strategy.

In the matter of Maryland's 2012 Watershed Protection and Restoration Program, it's probably the best idea.

The law, which required Baltimore and the nine counties to set fees to pay for their remediation projects, has been applied unevenly. Frederick County considers the mandate a joke and charges a penny a household. Carroll County got an exemption. Harford County scrapped its $12.50-per-household fee. Steve Schuh, the new Anne Arundel County executive, says the county doesn't need to charge $85 per house; he believes he can find money for stormwater projects in the county's general fund while also meeting a campaign promise to reduce property taxes by 3 percent. Good luck with that.

The 2012 law was enacted to force local leaders to finally do something about stormwater pollution and to restore eroded streams, create wetlands and plant more trees and vegetation. The idea that the city and the counties can be trusted to come up with effective stormwater projects, without setting fees to pay for them, essentially scraps the law.

So, instead of trying to fix it, repeal it and replace it.

Replace it with something like the "flush tax."

That's a fee Marylanders have been paying for a decade. It started at $30 per household per year, and went to $60 in 2012. The money goes to the Bay Restoration Fund. It has been used to finance upgrades to sewage treatment plants and private septic systems, and to pay for cover crops to reduce runoff from farmland. All of that reduces nutrient pollution (nitrogen and phosphorus) going into the Chesapeake.

The numbers are impressive — $620 million for wastewater treatment plants in towns and cities throughout the state, $83 million for improved septic systems, $64 million for the cover crop program.

From the latest Bay Restoration Fund advisory committee report:

So far, 35 treatment plants have been upgraded, with 20 more being fixed, 12 being designed or planned.

More than 6,500 septic systems have been improved, about half of them in areas closest to the bay.

From July 2013 to June 2014, Maryland farmers planted more than 420,000 acres in cover crops, keeping an estimated 2.5 million pounds of nitrogen and 85,000 pounds of phosphorus out of the bay. In the present fiscal year, farmers have applied to the state to plant a record 631,375 acres of cover crops.

The "flush tax" was ridiculed when it was first proposed by Maryland's last Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich. But it has been praised by both Republicans and Democrats in the years since it took effect. Some have called it the most significant step we've taken toward reaching bay restoration goals.

It's politically palatable because we all pay the same fee into the fund and the state dishes out the money where it's needed. The same should have been done for stormwater remediation projects. It still could be.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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