What's in a name affects attitudes: 'rain tax' vs. 'stormwater fee'

Calling stormwater fees a “rain tax” affects views, polls show.

As the General Assembly debates repealing a hotly contested fee meant to pay for efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, it turns out the name you give that fee can make it less controversial.

Proponents call it the stormwater fee. Critics, including Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, call it the rain tax.

Two recent polls show how framing the issue can sway public attitudes. They were conducted as lawmakers debate repealing the three-year-old law, which mandated fees on residents and businesses in Baltimore City and the state's nine largest counties. The fees help pay for controlling polluted runoff from buildings and pavement, a problem for the bay.

The Senate unanimously passed a bill this month that would make clear it is optional for the jurisdictions to levy the fees. A hearing is scheduled Wednesday in the House of Delegates.

In a poll earlier this month by OpinionWorks of Annapolis, half of those questioned said they think people will be taxed "for the rain that falls on their rooftops and driveways."

The telephone poll of 594 voters was commissioned by the Clean Water Healthy Families Coalition, a group opposed to repeal of the fee mandate.

In that poll, only 23 percent of respondents said they supported the fees based on what they had read or heard. Forty percent opposed the fees, while 26 percent had no opinion.

After the pollsters read off "a few facts," support doubled to 46 percent and opposition fell to 35 percent. The questioners said the money collected would go to reducing toxins and contaminants in the water. And they told respondents the funding would make it "safer for pets and kids to swim" and for people to eat crabs and fish.

Another poll, done by Goucher College, also found views about the fees were more negative when "rain tax" was mentioned instead of "stormwater management fees."

In the poll of 619 Maryland residents, half were asked a question that included the phrase "rain tax," while half got the same question without that term. Of those who heard it referred to as a "rain tax," 62 percent opposed paying the fee, while 36 percent supported it. Attitudes shifted among those asked about the stormwater fee — 51 percent opposed paying it and 46 percent favored it.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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