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Miller moves to drop 'rain tax' mandate, make counties show instead how they're curbing pollution

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. offered his own bill to repeal the storm-water management fee mandate that critics deride as a "rain tax." He would instead require local governments to report on how they're paying for cleaning up storm-water pollution.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. offered his own bill to repeal the storm-water management fee mandate that critics deride as a "rain tax." He would instead require local governments to report on how they're paying for cleaning up storm-water pollution. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller waded into the "rain tax" controversy Wednesday, offering his own bill to effectively repeal the mandate that Baltimore city and Maryland's nine largest counties levy storm-water management fees on their property owners.

Instead, Miller would require those local governments to submit a report on how they plan to pay for storm-water pollution projects required of them by the federal government to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

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Runoff from city and suburban streets, buildings and parking lots is a significant and growing source of pollution fouling the bay, federal officials have said. But the fees have generated vocal criticism.

"This has been a very contentious issue that I believe this proposal will help resolve," Miller said in a statement announcing introduction of his bill. With 30 cosponsors, including 11 Republicans, it appears sure to pass the 47-member Senate. Its future is less certain in the House, where Speaker Michael E. Busch has opposed repeal.

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Miller's bill follows introduction by Gov. Larry Hogan and several other lawmakers of bills that would simply repeal the storm-water fee mandate adopted in 2012, which Hogan and other critics have ridiculed as a tax on rain.

The Senate president has voiced concerns of his own about how the fees are assessed and used, though until recently he's said he would oppose outright repeal. He said Wednesday that he didn't believe it was necessary for the state to dictate how local governments meet their bay cleanup obligations. But he said they should be required to show how they intend to pay for the required storm-water control projects.

"This legislation maintains flexibility for county governments while still ensuring that they can meet their obligations to protect and clean up the bay," Miller said.

Lawmakers last year approved Carroll County's refusal to charge a fee and Frederick County's decision to levy a token one-cent fee. Since Hogan's election on a pledge to repeal the mandate, Harford County has repealed its fee, while Baltimore and other counties are weighing reductions or repeal.

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Under Miller's bill, local governments would still have the option of charging a storm-water fee, as hundreds do across Maryland and the rest of the country. But Miller's bill would cap how much nonprofit organizations have to pay, and if those groups can show the fees would be a hardship, let them meet their pollution reduction obligation some other way.

Miller's measure also would clarify a provision in the original 2012 law that seemed to bar local governments from using their storm-water fees to pay for pollution reduction efforts they were already funding.

Legislative analysts reported last year that Baltimore city and Harford County had subsituted fee revenues for other funds they were spending on storm-water projects. Miller and others complained about that, but the attorney general's office said the law wasn't clear on that point.

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