6:00 AM EDT, April 16, 2012
Look who's smiling now?
Even as the Maryland General Assembly was heading toward a budgetary train wreck last week, there was one unlikely group that had trouble believing its good fortune coming out of the 90-day session — the state's environmental community.
Not only did Maryland's Chesapeake Bay lobby push through a doubling of the flush tax, but it managed to persuade lawmakers to require the state's largest jurisdictions to impose new fees that will be invested in storm water runoff controls. Add to that passage of Gov.Martin O'Malley's plan to limit large residential developments that require septic systems, and 2012 will be remembered as a banner year for those dedicated to clean water.
There are several lessons in this. The first is the public's willingness to support measures that would benefit the nation's largest estuary.
After all, this was not a banner year for raising revenue of most any kind. Even Mr. O'Malley's own pro-environment proposal to encourage development of an offshore wind farm to generate electricity for the state died for the second year in a row, despite its modest cost to consumers. Yet environmentalists succeeded in passing two "money" bills — the flush tax, which will cost homeowners $2.50 more each month on their sewage bills, and the storm water fee, the cost of which will eventually be set by local government.
The difference? It may have something to do with the public's strong desire to see sewage treatment plants upgraded and to create cleaner streams and other waterways around Baltimore and the suburban counties. Those aren't just goals for groups like Environment Maryland, the Maryland League of Conservation Voters or the Chesapeake Bay Foundation but ones that have broad public appeal.
It probably also doesn't hurt that both measures will help local governments to meet federal pollution control standards. Without these new sources of tax dollars, cash-strapped counties and towns would be unlikely to adhere to terms of the so-called "pollution diet" requirements backed by theU.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
But just as critical to the success of the pro-Chesapeake measures was the willingness of advocates to compromise. Each of the bills started out much stronger. The flush tax, for instance, would have eventually been tripled, not doubled. The storm water management tax would have applied to rural counties, not just the largest. The septic bill may have been watered down the most — to the point where the state won't have much legal authority.
Some may see the glass as half empty, but that's not how the legislative process works. Those who aren't willing to compromise seldom get anything done (Congress is offering prime examples of that on a regular basis). Those who do make deals with their opponents can come back the next year or the year after and push for stronger laws.
How might that work in this case? Next year, you can bet that environmentalists will try to close a loophole that exempts state and local governments from storm water regulations and fees. They'll also likely try to strengthen the septic law. As for the flush tax? Expect another push in a few years when the need for further sewage treatment plant upgrades arises.
Even in the best of years, advocating for a cleaner Chesapeake Bay is no easy task. Supporters often find themselves at loggerheads with powerful groups ranging from agribusiness to manufacturing, large-scale developers and local government. But this year, it helped that the environmental community in Annapolis seemed united in their cause and focused on those three major bills.
All of which should give Marylanders hope that the restoration of the state's most important natural resource is far from a lost cause. Make no mistake, there will be much more to be done, particularly in the difficult areas of land use planning and controlling runoff from farms and streets, to ensure a brighter future for the bay and its tributaries.
But to pass fee increases and new environmental regulations at a time when politicians are balking at both and lawmakers can't even approve a proper budget? That's truly impressive. It's something those running for office this year and in 2014 may want to consider: In good times or bad, Marylanders are willing to rally around their beloved Chesapeake Bay.
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