Following through on a campaign promise, Gov. Larry Hogan unveiled legislation Tuesday that would repeal Maryland's requirement that its largest counties impose a fee to pay for stormwater cleanup. Critics call it the "rain tax."
Hogan said his legislation would allow counties to scrap the fees if they want. Local officials should be free to decide how to pay for required programs to prevent polluted stormwater from reaching the Chesapeake Bay, he said.
"Repealing the rain tax has nothing to do with our commitment to the bay or our desire to control stormwater management," Hogan said. "It has everything to do with my belief, and the overwhelming majority of Marylanders' belief, that the state should not be forcing counties to raise taxes on their citizens against their will."
The 2012 law he wants to repeal requires the state's 10 largest jurisdictions, including Baltimore and Baltimore County, to impose the fee to pay for the stormwater projects. A court decision has already made the fees optional, and three of the local governments are charging either nothing or a nominal amount.
Environmentalists say Hogan's effort is more than symbolic because it could weaken support for stormwater programs in the counties that do charge a fee.
"This law is important because it's about ... having dedicated revenue to address a growing source of pollution," said Brent Bolin, a spokesman for the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. He said the point of the fees was to make sure cleanup projects would not have to compete with police, schools and other needs for scarce funding.
Hogan, a Republican, denied that his move represents a retreat from the state's commitment to clean up the bay, as charged by several leading environmental groups.
"I can assure you I'm going to be the best environmental governor that's ever served," he said. Hogan said he believes the state does have a role in monitoring the counties' progress in meeting federal goals, but should not tell them how to comply.
Hogan — naming Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore City — said jurisdictions that want to "tax the rain" would be free to assess the fees.
"This repeal doesn't take away their right to do so," he said. Other Baltimore-area counties covered by the law include Howard, Anne Arundel, Harford and Carroll.
At a State House news conference, a combative Hogan repeated familiar themes from last year's campaign in which denunciations of the "rain tax" proved to be one of his most potent issues, even in the 14 jurisdictions that were not directly affected.
"The rain tax was the straw that broke the camel's back and it ignited a tax revolution in our state," he said. Hogan called it a "universally despised" tax that made Maryland a national laughingstock.
The governor claimed Tuesday to have the support of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller in passing the bill. He warned critics in the legislature — an apparent reference to House Speaker Michael E. Busch and other Democrats in his chamber — that they would oppose him at their political peril.
"This is a real big loser for them" Hogan said, adding that the fee is especially unpopular in Busch's Anne Arundel County.
Busch, who expects to have breakfast Wednesday with Hogan, was not budging in his opposition to repeal.
"Doing the right thing is never being a loser," Busch said. He noted that Annapolis has had such a fee for about a dozen years.
"Why should the citizens of Annapolis be the only ones to protect the bay?" he asked.
Miller's comments on the fees over the preceding 24 hours indicate that he is far from a reliable ally of Hogan on the issue. Miller, a Democrat, has said that he expects the Senate but not the House to pass some changes to the fees.
The Senate president said the counties requested the legislation as a way of dealing with the federal mandate for the projects. Miller added that in 2017 those counties will have to account for their efforts toward meeting the federal requirements.
"It's not going to be eliminated," Miller said of the requirement. He said he is having his own bill drafted on the topic.
Hogan was joined at his news conference by Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, who recently signed legislation repealing the fee there. Glassman, a Republican, said eliminating the mandate from law would remove the "black cloud" of a potential action by the Maryland attorney general's office to force compliance.
"It really levels the playing field for all Maryland counties," Glassman said.
The attorney general's office fought and lost that battle when it sought to force Carroll County to adopt a fee. A court ruled that the county could choose to use existing revenue to pay for the projects. Frederick County took a different tack in opposing the tax, imposing a nominal 1-cent fee on homeowners.
Del. Haven N. Shoemaker Jr., a Carroll County Republican who was a county commissioner during the standoff with the state, said his jurisdiction was paying for millions of dollars worth of stormwater projects out of general funds.
"We don't need a mandate from Annapolis to do that which is right," he said.
However, environmental advocates said Maryland counties have not regularly provided adequate funding to reduce polluted runoff.
"Look at the history," said Tom Zolper, a spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "To promise is one thing. The history is otherwise."
Meanwhile, he said, the state has done little to force local governments to maintain spending on such projects.
"The state for 20 years has been very lax in enforcing the requirements of those permits," Zolper said.
Bolin said the mandate gave political cover to local leaders to do what they were required to do.
"This will frustrate counties like Prince George's, Montgomery and Anne Arundel who are working very, very hard to turn these fees into projects in their counties," Bolin said.
The Republican success in defining the fees as a "rain tax" has put pressure on some county officials to reduce or eliminate the fees. In Baltimore County, for instance, Executive Kevin Kamenetz and the County Council said last month that they were considering a plan to reduce the $39-a-year fee on homeowners to $26.
On Tuesday, Kamenetz dismissed Hogan's legislation as "simply a symbolic act."
"Repealing the state law does not resolve the fact that 10 local jurisdictions are obligated by state and federal mandate to fund cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay," he said.
Del. Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat who heads the House committee that will consider the legislation, said he supports the fees because he sees them as the most effective way to clean up the bay. If Hogan has an alternative to the fees, he said, the House leadership is willing to listen.
"The end point of this exercise cannot be for counties to be off the hook and do nothing," Barve said.