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Del. Pat McDonough, R-Baltimore County, printed bumper stickers, signs and buttons calling for voters to support efforts to repeal the state's Stormwater Management - Watershed Protection and Restoration Program, commonly known as the "rain tax."
Del. Pat McDonough, R-Baltimore County, printed bumper stickers, signs and buttons calling for voters to support efforts to repeal the state's Stormwater Management - Watershed Protection and Restoration Program, commonly known as the "rain tax." (Courtesy Image , Capital Gazette)

Bumper stickers and buttons have been printed. T-shirts and coffee mugs have been designed. The General Assembly convened last week, so what's in fashion this session?

House Bill 987.

It's better known as Stormwater Management - Watershed Protection and Restoration Program.

That's a bit wordy for a shirt. Try "rain tax."

There was debate but less attention two years ago, when the measure passed the General Assembly. Now rain tax repeal apparel is coming.

"It's like 'Remember the Alamo,'" said Del. Pat McDonough.

The Baltimore County Republican said he coined the phrase on his talk-radio show during winter 2012.

Political scholars call this "sloganeering" - a strategy that can spur action, but also cloud understanding.

Frederick County Commissioners President Blaine Young, a Republican, also says he started using "rain tax" in 2012.

House Bill 987 requires populous counties and Baltimore to set fees to pay for stream-rebuilding projects to lessen Chesapeake Bay pollution. The counties and city passed local laws to set these fees.

So now there's one state law and several local laws.

Which is the rain tax?

Depends who you ask.

McDonough calls the state law the "rain tax."

Young uses the words to refer to the state and local laws.

Del. Steve Schuh reserves the term for Anne Arundel County's set of fees.

"Many citizens are confused into thinking the rain tax is one thing - it's not," said Schuh, R-Gibson Island. "Those kind of short, punchy labels can be a little misleading."

Schuh supports the state law, but says Anne Arundel should have adopted a smaller fee while cutting property taxes. He plans to ask the County Council to cut property taxes to offset the fee.

"'Rain tax' is easy to remember, it gets people's attention, and it gets them excited," he said.

"It's not really a tax on rain, it's on impervious surface."

Sloganeering

since Jefferson

William Shakespeare wrote in "Romeo and Juliet"

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What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Perhaps 'twas true in Elizabethan England, but not in American politics.

"If you have the right name, either everybody has to be for it, or nobody can be against it," said Jarol Manheim, an Edgewater resident and founding director of the School of Media & Public Affairs at The George Washington University.

Consider two federal bills:

The "USA Patriot Act," an acronym for the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act.

The "Dream Act," an acronym for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act.

Do we dare oppose patriots? Dreams?

This name game has Colonial origins, said Christopher Sagers, law professor at Cleveland State University.

Sagers writes in his

that Thomas Jefferson's Embargo Act of 1807 was so mocked by the public it became known as the "O Grab Me" act - embargo spelled backward.

Today, some slogans are carefully crafted by consulting firms.

Montgomery County resident John Ashford is chairman of The Hawthorn Group LC, a communications firm based in Alexandria, Va. He has worked since the 1970s for political campaigns across the country.

One of them involved a series of technical ballot amendments to regulate utilities in Michigan. Those amendments were labeled by letter. Ashford wanted to defeat "D," pass "G," and defeat "H."

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His slogan: "'D' is dumb. 'G' is good. 'H' is horrible."

It worked.

"There are people to this day in Michigan who couldn't begin to tell me what it had to do with," Ashford said.

They're not called candy taxes, Ashford said, they're "fat taxes."

Not alcohol taxes, but "sin taxes."

Why penalize drinkers, if we can make sinners pay?

Years ago, some Missourians wanted to decrease the margin of the majority vote needed to approve general obligation bonds, Ashford said. Their amendment was worded to require a "four-sevenths" majority instead of "57 percent."

Fractions seem larger.

"I don't think it's necessarily malicious," Ashford said. "There has to be truth in it, or it won't work."

And of the slogan "rain tax"?

He considered.

"Why should we pay for rain?"

Colorful language

McDonough learned to entertain on the radio.

Among his one-liners:

  • "People call in and say, 'Why are these politicians in Annapolis so stupid?' I tell them, they aren't stupid at all, they're evil geniuses."
  • Instead of the General Assembly, he sometimes says "General Asylum."
  • At a town hall meeting, he'll ask someone to stand. "You know what the General Assembly sees? An ATM."

"If you want to make a point about something complex, you reduce it to the simplest term," McDonough said.

So "rain tax" isn't meant to be taken literally.

"The accuracy of the term is unimportant. The reaction it creates is the only thing that matters," McDonough said. "It will stimulate people to educate themselves."

Young in Frederick County said "rain tax" captures the intent of the laws.

"It doesn't fluctuate with the amount of rain," Young said, "but the whole premise of the tax is based on runoff."

Both men repeated "rain tax" on the air after the state bill passed. McDonough printed posters calling for repeal.

The slogan spread.

"It would be hard to comprehend people walking around saying, 'Gee, we have to stop this stormwater tax,'" McDonough said.

Like any successful slogan, "rain tax" restricts opposition.

"In order to support it you have to be pro-tax as opposed to pro-environment," said Manheim, who taught at The George Washington University. "It's called 'rain tax,' so it's a tax debate."

Environmentalists answered on the opening day of the session.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation released its slogan defending stormwater fees.

Only time will tell if it sticks: "Crab cakes, not crap cakes."

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