A House committee voted along party lines Friday to kill Gov. Larry Hogan's bill to repeal the so-called "rain tax.''
Dealing a blow to one of the Republican governor's top legislative priorities, the Democratic majority of the House Environmental Matters and Transportation Committee refused to roll back the controversial 2012 law that requires Baltimore City and the state's nine largest counties to levy stormwater remediation fees on property owners. The vote was 14-7.
Republican members argued that voters had spoken in electing Hogan, who campaigned on a pledge to end the fee mandate. St. Mary's County Del. Anthony O'Donnell said repeal "simply is a promise made and a promise kept."
But Del. Kumar P. Barve, the panel's chairman, said he was convinced the current law gives counties and the city all the flexibility they need to reduce or even eliminate their fees if they want to, as some already have. The Montgomery County Democrat said he, too, ran for re-election, and his constituents were very concerned about stormwater runoff and against repeal.
"I don't remember a single Republican saying they would go along with Barack Obama after he won two elections," Barve said after the vote.
Hogan issued a statement saying he was "confident that the General Assembly will still move forward with a repeal of the rain tax." Some Senate bills would lift the mandate, including one put in by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller that has 29 co-sponsors, more than enough to pass that chamber.
House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga called the vote "disappointing" but said Republicans would get behind Miller's bill if necessary.
"None of us cares who gets the credit," said the Baltimore County Republican.
Barve said any Senate bill that reached his committee would be considered, but he suggested the outcome would be the same if it didn't differ substantially from Hogan's.
The General Assembly adopted the fee requirement in 2012 as a way of making sure the jurisdictions complied with a federal mandate to curb stormwater runoff from streets, parking lots and buildings, a significant and growing source of Chesapeake Bay pollution. The measure passed over the heated opposition of Republican lawmakers.
The stormwater fee was not part of Gov. Martin O'Malley's legislative package that year, but he embraced the concept and signed the bill.
While Republicans could not stop the fee, they were successful in branding it the "rain tax." It provoked complaints from businesses and homeowners in the Baltimore area, though it was more widely accepted in the Washington suburbs. Some counties balked at the mandate or only minimally complied. Frederick County set the rate at one cent per household, while Carroll County refused to adopt a fee at all. Harford County adopted a fee but repealed it after last fall's election.
Hogan and other repeal advocates argued that counties would still be free to charge a fee if they wanted, and that all would still have to find the funds needed to reduce stormwater pollution. But repeal opponents pointed to an opinion issued last month by the attorney general's office saying the current law lets counties and the city lower or drop their fees altogether, as long as they set aside sufficient funds from other sources to pay for needed cleanup projects.