Legislature withstands stormwater storm, few other environmental efforts pass

For environmental groups, the best news out of the 2014 Maryland General Assembly is not what legislators accomplished, it's what they didn't do.

They did not pass any of the flood of bills attempting to repeal or gut the two-year-old stormwater pollution clean-up law.

"We were really playing defense," said Brent Bolin, of the League of Conservation Voters. "Our goal was to keep the clean water laws intact and we succeeded."

Bills to increase funding to track pesticide use, expand natural "wildlands," and extend tax credits for property redevelopment to foster Smart Growth passed.

But other environmental priorities did not fare well.

Legislation failed that would have reduced the use of a paper mill byproduct called black liquor as a renewable resource. So did the effort to get power companies to boost the share of renewable energy sold from 20 percent by 2020 to 40 percent by 2025.

Bills to curtail or delay possible shale gas mining, so called "fracking," failed.

The ongoing fight to keep Open Space money from the state recordation tax didn't shake loose the full funding needed to keep up with demand for land preservation and recreation.

Legislators defeated bills to delay new agricultural phosphorus rules, though a budget bill compromise requires the Department of Agriculture to do a cost analysis before the program takes effect.

Lobbying veterans planned on it being a relatively ho-hum year, typical of election years.

"In an election year, especially with a change in governor, things get pretty lean," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins of 1000 Friends of Maryland, of environmental breakthroughs. "We will concentrate on issues that might be a topic of conversation for the election. That is the plan we went on."

Holding the line on stormwater legislation fit that bill.

Legislation passed in 2012 required Baltimore City and nine counties with federal water pollution permits to create a program to both fix longstanding stormwater runoff problems and maintain current stormwater systems. It also required they establish a separate means to pay for the programs.

Most jurisdictions turned to a tax or fee based on how much hardened surface, like driveways, parking lots and roofs, are on a property.

Republicans, calling the resultant financial burden a "rain tax," pushed to repeal the law or weaken it statewide or in bills aimed at specific jurisdictions such as Anne Arundel.

All 20 bills introduced to curtail stormwater legislation were defeated.

"The few but vocal opponents of clean water threw everything they had at the stormwater legislation this year," Perkins said.

All the bills were defeated in committee or simply stuck in the drawer, the term used to describe a bill that does not come up for a vote in committee.

A determining factor in the stormwater debate was early opposition from leadership. Both Speaker of the House Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.declared a stormwater law repeal was not going to happen.

"We had done a lot of work before the session," Bolin said. "When they came out early against repeal, that changed the conversation quite a bit."

Despite the sound defeat of the stormwater bills there was a last minute effort during budget negotiations to allow the 10 jurisdictions to use property tax revenue to do stormwater work, much like Carroll County was able to to do under an agreement with the Maryland Department of the Environment and Attorney General.

In the end, a compromise nixed that maneuver but allowed Carroll and Frederick counties, both of which had not established serious means to fund stormwater work, to use property taxes for stormwater efforts. Both will still have to meet federal stormwater reduction goals and face tougher pollution permits this year.

"It's unfortunate that a few legislators felt compelled to do an end-around the legislative process and insert last-minute language into the budget bill, but at the end of the day Maryland's polluted runoff law is still intact," said Allison Prost, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.