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Busch vows to 'stand firm' on 'rain tax'

House Speaker Michael E. Busch told environmental activists he would resist repeal of storm-water pollution fees critics - including Gov. Larry Hogan - have scorned as a "rain tax."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch told environmental activists he would resist repeal of storm-water pollution fees critics - including Gov. Larry Hogan - have scorned as a "rain tax." (Amy Davis)

House Speaker Michael E. Busch is vowing to resist any move this year to repeal the storm-water pollution cleanup fees being charged in Baltimore city and most of Maryland's largest counties.

"We're going to stand firm," Busch told environmental activists gathered in Annapolis Tuesday for their annual legislative summit.

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The gathering in the Senate office building reviewed this year's green agenda, which also calls for a long-term moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," for natural gas, doubling the state's goals for renewable energy, curbing pesticides and reducing litter and plastic pollution.

Gov. Larry Hogan has vowed to seek repeal of the law mandating the controversial storm-water fees, which critics have dubbed a "rain tax."

But Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said he believed the law already gives local governments all the flexiblity they need to deal with the issue.

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Rainfall runoff from city and suburban streets, buildings and parking lots is a significant and growing source of pollution fouling the Chesapeake Bay. Retrofitting storm drains in existing communities can be costly, though, and until recently local governments said they lacked funds to do much.

Lawmakers voted in 2012 to require the city and the state's nine largest counties to raise money for reducing storm-water runoff by charging fees on landowners. Local officials were allowed to set whatever fee they deemed appropriate. But the fees have proven controversial, with critics saying the varying rates and exemptions set by each jurisdiction are confusing and inconsistent.

Legislative leaders last year blocked efforts to repeal the fees, but they ultimately agreed to bless two counties' dodging the spirit if not the letter of the law. Frederick set its fee at a token one cent a year, while Carroll balked at setting any fee, pledging instead to set aside general funds each year to reduce polluted runoff from its roads and parking lots.

But the so-called "rain tax" continued to draw fire, primarily from Republican candidates, during last year's election.

Since then, Harford County repealed its fees, while Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat, moved to reduce the fees charged there. Other counties also are weighing whether to follow suit.

In Annapolis, meanwhile, Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, has introduced a bill to repeal the storm-water fee law.

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