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Gov. Hogan will roll back O'Malley-era septic rule, demands repeal of "road kill bill"

Gov. Larry Hogan said Saturday that his administration will roll back an O'Malley-era regulation on septic systems and demanded that the General Assembly repeal a new transportation law he dubbed "the road kill bill."

In a speech that turned combative at times, the Republican governor said that on Monday the Maryland Department of the Environment will issue a new regulation allowing counties to permit septic systems that are less than the best available technology to be installed on properties outside environmentally critical areas.

"We heard your voices loud and clear to take action on this issue," he told the Maryland Association of Counties in Ocean City.

The septic regulation rolls back rules requiring new construction to use high-tech systems to reduce water pollution. It was adopted by Gov. Martin O'Malley's Democratic administration in 2012.

Since then some county officials have complained that the rule impedes economic development, and builders argue it adds thousands of dollars to the cost of a new home without scientific evidence that the systems make a difference.

Hogan reserved his deepest scorn for the transportation scoring law enacted by the Democratic-controlled legislature this spring over his vehement objections.

The legislature required the Maryland Department of Transportation to rank all large proposed highway and transit projects that add capacity according to environmental, economic and other factors before choosing which ones to fund.

Though the legislature did not require the state to rigidly choose projects according to those scores, Hogan described the measure in dire terms.

"This is a bill that kills all the road projects in this state," he told reporters after his speech.

Even under the scoring system devised by the administration, which critics say was produced without public input, two road projects rank in the top seven that the transportation department says it can afford to fund next year. They include a $3 billion widening of the Capital Beltway.

But the Hogan administration sent letters to 21 of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions, including Baltimore County, warning that none of their projects would be funded under the scoring system.

The governor predicted that Democrats who voted for the bill would reverse themselves under pressure from constituents and repeal it. He compared the fight to the one over the "rain tax," the stormwater management fee that lawmakers made optional for large counties after Hogan made it an issue in the 2014 election.

Del. Kumar Barve, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the House Environment and Transportation Committee, said repeal is highly unlikely.

"Before we declare a law to be a bad law, it ought to be enforced in the spirit in which it was written," he said.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat who is weighing whether to challenge Hogan in 2018, said the governor's "fears seemed a little exaggerated." He said he was not concerned about the warning letter.

"To suggest that the state won't be funding improvements to the Baltimore Beltway is hard to fathom," he said.

Evan Slaughenhoupt, Republican president of the Calvert County Board of Commissioners, said his jurisdiction does feel threatened by the new law.

"It's horrible what the legislature did to us," he said. "We have several projects that are now in jeopardy."

The fight over the transportation scoring bill was one of the most bitter of this year's legislative session.

Democrats and environmentalists argued than an objective scoring system would bring transparency to the selection of projects while preserving the governor's ultimate discretion on what to fund.

Hogan and his allies rejected that view. They argued that the scoring system was an encroachment on gubernatorial powers and an implicit rejection of his priorities. His transportation department argued that a scoring process was inherently biased in favor of large metropolitan counties.

One group that lobbied hard for the transit-friendly bill was the environmental advocacy organization 1,000 Friends of Maryland.

Though Democrats added language to explicitly preserve executive powers, the administration pulled out all the stops to defeat the bill — even calling out individual lawmakers on Hogan's Facebook page.

When the Senate and House of Delegates passed the bill, Hogan vetoed it. Using their supermajorities in both chambers, Democratic lawmakers overrode the veto.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland, criticized Hogan's decision to reverse the rule barring installation of older, low-tech septic systems throughout the state, limiting the ban to the "critical areas" within 1,000 feet of the Chesapeake Bay.

"Why is it OK to protect water within 1,000 feet of the bay, but it's not OK to protect the water that's in the streams, the ponds, the lakes and our drinking water?" she said.

Both Schmidt-Perkins and Barve said they might push for legislation to codify the O'Malley rule in law.

Michael Sanderson, executive director of MACO, said the rule was a particular concern near state borders, where it could make houses more expensive than those in Delaware or Pennsylvania.

Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said the rules can add $10,000 to $20,000 to the cost of a home. He stressed that the rules would not change in the critical areas or for large septic systems with a capacity of 5,000 gallons or more.

Grumbles said his department also would step up efforts to require the replacement of failing septic systems.

"It's about a smarter, more effective way to make environmental progress," he said. "We are going to strive for a smarter, more balanced approach."

mdresser@baltsun.com

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