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News Opinion Editorial

The chicken tax hits the fan [Editorial]

On average, about 2,600 bills are introduced during a 90-day General Assembly session, so governors rarely have much to say about 99 percent of them, at least not until they've at least had a public hearing or perhaps even a committee vote. But that wasn't the case with Senate Bill 725, which apparently is so distasteful that Gov. Martin O'Malley promised to veto it within days of its mere introduction in Annapolis.

Not only did he threaten to veto it, but Mr. O'Malley even publicly used that phrase offered by President George H. W. Bush to "read my lips" that he wouldn't approve the new tax (apparently ignoring the irony of a Democratic governor quoting a Republican president on a promise he so infamously reversed course on).

What tax could be so horrible to a governor who has raised his share of them? Mr. O'Malley was lashing out against the "Poultry Fair Share Act," a proposed 5-cent-per-bird wholesale tax offered by Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat. The tax would raise an estimated $15 million annually, and the money would be used entirely to finance cover crops on farm land where chicken manure is applied.

Now, let's make something clear: We don't know if such a tax is a good idea or a bad idea. We do know that poultry waste is an enormous problem in this state because of the harm it does when it runs off land and into streams, rivers and eventually, the Chesapeake Bay. It's a major source of nitrogen and phosphorus, particularly in Eastern Shore tributaries.

But we are also sympathetic to the argument that such a tax may not be the best solution for the problem. It could, for instance, discourage poultry companies and cost jobs. And the stakes are pretty high in that regard: The industry estimates there are 15,000 poultry-related jobs on the Delmarva peninsula. Raising the cost of growing chickens in Maryland is bound to have some adverse consequences in such a price-sensitive business.

It's also clear that the O'Malley administration recognizes the poultry manure problem and has pushed not only for greater funding of cover crops and for regulations addressing excess phosphorus on crop land, the manure-related nutrient that is most likely to accumulate in the soil. That latter effort has not always endeared the governor to the farm community, nor has his unwavering support of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, the so-called pollution diet enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Yet the problem with these laudable pollution-fighting efforts is that they tend to impose a burden on farmers but not on the big poultry companies. That's what makes Mr. Madaleno's bill somewhat intriguing — it might actually charge the deep-pocketed polluter to the benefit of the little-guy grower who gets stuck with most of the burden of poultry waste.

Given the importance of protecting the Chesapeake Bay — and given the complexity of the problem — why would a governor threaten to veto the bill before it's even been heard? Incidentally, Mr. O'Malley's threat was first voiced at the annual "Taste of Maryland" dinner honoring farmers six days after the bill was submitted and 19 days before its first hearing in the Senate. The sponsor of a House version of the bill has already indicated he will withdraw it.

We reject the argument offered by some that even discussing a tax threatens the industry. Such a chill on free speech ought to be regarded as unacceptable. And we would further point out that cover crops are now financed by fees on sewage plants and septic systems and other broad levies, so ordinary taxpayers have a dog in this particular hunt, too.

Could it be the governor is attempting to woo farmers in advance of the Iowa presidential primary in 2016? That's a suggestion made last week by Food & Water Watch, the non-profit advocacy group that has battled the poultry industry before (and criticized Mr. O'Malley's opposition to a anti-pollution lawsuit brought against an Eastern Shore chicken farming couple as well as his ties to Salisbury-based Perdue Farms).

Whether it is or isn't about politics, we agree with environmentalists in this regard — the bill ought to be heard. That it has little chance of passing, let alone enactment, given the veto threat, is immaterial. The day lawmakers can't even explore how to help the Chesapeake Bay is the day we know all hope for cleanup efforts is truly lost — and it doesn't bode especially well for the alleged independence of the Democratically-controlled state legislature either.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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