A late bid in Annapolis to alter Maryland's storm-water fee law has drawn fire from environmentalists and from the attorney general's office, calling it an unconstitutional end run on the legislative process.
Senators meeting with their House counterparts to resolve differences over the state budget have proposed an amendment to a budget-related bill that would allow a county or municipality to avoid levying a storm-water management fee on its property owners. After initially accepting the proposal, House conferees backtracked and put a "hold" on it.
The controversy stems from an effort by Sen. Joseph Getty to shield Carroll County from a lawsuit over its refusal to impose a storm-water fee. Under a 2012 law, Baltimore City and Maryland's nine largest counties -- including Carroll -- are required to impose such fees to raise the money needed to control polluted runoff from streets, parking lots and rooftops. The measure was pushed by environmentalists and backed by the O'Malley administration as needed to help finance cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. Storm runoff is a signficant and growing source of pollution fouling the bay.
But when the fee mandate hit last year, it provoked a furor, as some businesses, churches and homeowners complained of being socked with steep charges. An effort to put the law on hold died on the final day of last year's General Assembly session. This year, more than a dozen bills were introduced in Annapolis to repeal the law, exempt individual counties or otherwise revise the requirement. All have either been killed or bottled up in committee.
Carroll opted not to impose a fee, though, arguing that it could finance needed pollution controls from its general budget. The county's stance drew a warning from the attorney general that it faced thousands in fines for violating the law. But after months of negotiations, the Maryland Department of the Environment agreed to let Carroll skip the fee, as county officials pledged to put property tax revenues in a special fund dedicated to the pollution control effort.
Getty, a Republican who represents Carroll, said county officials were worried they still might be sued for not imposing a fee. With time growing short in the 90-day legislative session, he said he proposed an amendment to a budget-related bill that had already passed both chambers, but with differences that needed to be worked out in a House-Senate conference.
The provision says MDE may approve an alternate method for financing storm-water pollution reductions, in which a locality would steer property tax revenues from its general fund into a fund dedicated to the cleanup effort.
Environmentalists, who had successfully lobbied so far to squash any changes to the fee law this year, cried foul.
"This is an end run around the process that's not appropriate," argued Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland. She said environmentalists feared other localities could use the same provision to drop their fees, setting back the bay cleanup effort.
Funding storm-water controls from property taxes would create inequities, Schmidt-Perkins added. For instance, because they don't pay taxes, churches and nonprofits would be exempted from paying anything to control storm runoff from their parking lots and buildings. That runoff would still have to be controlled, she said, and other property owners would pay higher fees as a result.
The Maryland attorney general's office also has weighed in, warning courts could find it unconstitutional to attach storm-water fee legislation to an unrelated bill, the Budget Reconciliation and Finance Act.
"Frankly, the whole raison d-etre for this amendment to have emerged at this time and in this manner was to force members to vote for an unpalatable provision to save the other meritorious provisions of the BRFA," wrote Dan Friedman, counsel to the General Assembly. Under legislative rules, anything agreed to by a joint House-Senate conference cannot be amended, and lawmakers must vote yes or no on the entire bill.
House members have insisted the storm-water fee provision be dropped, but it remains on the table for now. The budget conferees are scheduled to meet again Thursday afternoon. They must work out their differences in time for the General Assembly to agree on a budget by midnight April 7, the end of the legislative session.