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Miller storm-water fee bill advances in Senate

Bill pushed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller would repeal requirement that state's 10 largest localities charge storm-water fees, but they'd still be accountable for what they're doing and how they're paying for it.
Bill pushed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller would repeal requirement that state's 10 largest localities charge storm-water fees, but they'd still be accountable for what they're doing and how they're paying for it.

A bill that would effectively repeal the storm-water fee requirement that Gov. Larry Hogan campaigned against advanced in the Senate Thursday. And environmentalists, who've succeeded in killing other repeal efforts, are not opposing this one.

The bill, pushed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, makes it optional for Baltimore city and the state's nine largest counties to levy fees to reduce storm-water runoff. But the measure also contains several provisions meant to assure that the communities adequately fund efforts to clean up their polluted runoff.

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With 34 cosponsors, the bill gained preliminary approval without debate. It's expected to come up for a final vote on Friday.  Its prospects in the House are uncertain - leaders there have stood by the current law, arguing it already gives localities flexibility to lower or even skip fees altogether.

Hogan ran against the storm-water fee requirement, which he and other critics have derided as a "rain tax." But lawmakers balked at outright repeal of the fee, perhaps recalling how before it was required communities had cried poverty when pressed on what they were doing to cleanup polluted runoff.

Still, the fee mandate proved controversial. Frederick County set its charge at a token 1 cent per homeowner, while Carroll County refused to adopt a fee at all.  Harford County repealed its fee shortly after the election, while Baltimore County reduced its by a third.

Repeal bills put in by Hogan and an assortment of other lawmakers died in committee this year. But Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat, described the Miller bill as "a shift from how we pay to getting results" in curbing polluted runoff, a significant and growing source of Chesapeake Bay pollution.

While leaving it up to local officials to decide if they want to levy a fee, Miller's bill would require all 10 jurisdictions to publish a "financial assurance plan" spelling out what they must do to reduce storm-water and how they intend to pay for it.

The Maryland Department of the Environment would have to hold public hearings on the plans, and if regulators determine the localities aren't doing enough, can withhold state funds.

"You can't say you're going to do things if there isn't funding to pay for it," Pinsky said.

Montgomery County, which began charging storm-water fees before the state made it a requirement, would be largely exempt from the new bill. If other communities decide to keep levying fees, the legislation would require them to exempt veterans' groups and volunteer fire companies, while also providing a way to collect fees from state and federal governments for the runoff from their faciliites.

With those and other amendments, environmental groups dropped their opposition to Miller's bill.

"Obviously we think the stormwater fee program is a very solid program and didn't think the legislation is necessary," said Karla Raettig, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

The Miller bill would still leave it up to MDE to determine if the city and counties are doing enough - something that troubles environmentalists, who question how strict state regulators have been to date.

But she said the changes made to the bill addressed their concerns, and in at least one respect may be an improvement over the 2012 law.

Right now, Raettig contended, "there are a lot of counties that are not fully funding their storm-water cleanup programs," even with a requirement that they raise funds through a fee. The new bill would require counties to show where the money is coming from and where it's going on an annual basis, she pointed out.

"We were very concerned in the beginning that it was effectively a repeal and was going to hurt some programs," Raettig said. "But the amendments strengthened that."

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