Mr. Hogan's run-off trap

Repeal of the 'rain tax' might be the governor's most nonsensical cause

Here's something all Marylanders can agree on: It sure would be stupid to tax the rain. Fortunately, the state doesn't do it and never has, despite what one may hear from Gov. Larry Hogan whose recent "truth to power" State of the State address would have been a lot more effective if he'd stuck closer to the truth in that and a few other instances.

Can this debate over the stormwater remediation fee get any more ridiculous? Surely, the next step would be for a new "cognitive dissonance" drinking game to emerge on college campuses — players have to take a swig every time Mr. Hogan makes a speech extolling the virtues of the Chesapeake Bay while simultaneously promoting policies that pollute it.

Of course, that would only work if participants had to chug a glass of the stuff that drains off the driveways, streets and lawns across the state with its toxic blend of pesticides, motor oil, lawn fertilizer, pet waste and other less tasty components. At least then they'd get the idea why stormwater needs to be managed by slowing its travels and filtering out its nastier contents.

Here's the reality. This entire "debate" over the "rain tax" is a big, fat nothing-burger of a political conversation. Local governments in Maryland's largest subdivisions must reduce stormwater pollution or face serious sanctions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That's the crux of the matter. It's fair to debate the best manner to pay for it, but nothing changes the fact that it has to be done.

Even under Gov. Martin O'Malley, the 10 jurisdictions in question were given wide latitude over how they would impose a stormwater remediation fee. Carroll County, for instance, doesn't charge a separate fee at all. So there is no "rain tax" either in concept or reality. Other counties are already in the process of following a route similar to Carroll's, and we seriously doubt the Maryland Department of the Environment in the Hogan administration is going to get in their way.

Some jurisdictions, on the other hand, need to be able to charge a fee to pay for millions of dollars in projects in the years ahead — upgraded drainage systems, sediment ponds and better street cleaners to name a few typical expenses — and so they need the authority. Baltimore City, for example, doesn't have the budget flexibility to absorb those costs, and Montgomery County actually implemented such a fee before it was required. That's a big reason why Democratic leaders should stand up this week and pledge to fight Governor Hogan on this issue — an outright repeal of the stormwater remediation fee has no apparent upside.

House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller have to be delighted to see Mr. Hogan headed down this path of self-destructive behavior. The governor should have declared victory and pledged that MDE would be generous in assessing how local governments met their stormwater obligations. Instead, he's picked a fight he can't win while creating the impression that he doesn't give a flying fin fish for the Chesapeake Bay.

The more important debate is actually over the so-called Phosphorus Management Tool, a set of regulations that would lower the amount of phosphorus pouring into the bay and its tributaries. Much of it can be traced to Eastern Shore poultry manure used to fertilize farm fields. Mr. Hogan withdrew the regulations just before they were poised to take effect. This week, Democratic Sen. Paul Pinsky introduced legislation that would put them back on the books.

At least there's substance here. We support the legislation, but it will likely face tough going in the Senate where Mr. Miller is sympathetic to the potential impact on the poultry industry (and to the political fortunes of James Mathias Jr., a Democratic senator who narrowly won re-election from the lower Eastern Shore). But even here, the "pro-business" position is a matter of perspective: How many billions of dollars of economic activity are tied to a healthy Chesapeake? It surely dwarfs the profits of Perdue Farms no matter how many "Short Cuts" chicken breast strips they sell at Safeway.

Mr. Hogan says he doesn't want to see farmers unfairly shoulder the cost of a bay cleanup, but then he vows to "repeal" an anti-pollution program that's aimed at urban and suburban dwellers. What's a Marylander to make of all that?

In his speech, Mr. Hogan extolled the beauty of the Chesapeake Bay and called it "our most treasured asset." He acknowledged the problems of polluted run-off and excessive nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen. If he really has a better idea for how to address them, we're all ears. But for now, his talk of loving the bay sounds a lot like pabulum designed to keep Marylanders from noticing that he's not doing anything to save it.

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