Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's bid to end the long-running political uproar over the so-called "rain tax" ran into some turbulence Wednesday, as witness after witness urged a House panel to retool the Democratic leader's bill.
Miller told members of the House Environment and Transportation Committee that his bill would solve the controversy over the three-year-old law imposing stormwater remediation fees to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
"What we need to do is find a way to come together and make things happen," Miller said.
But county officials and builders and commercial developers warned that the bill could do more harm than good and asked for a variety of amendments to address their concerns.
Miller's bill, which passed the Senate unanimously, would effectively repeal the requirement that Baltimore city and the state's nine largest counties levy stormwater fees on their property owners. That appeals to Gov. Larry Hogan and other critics of the fee requirement, who have ridiculed it as a tax on rain. Hogan has called repeal his top priority, though his own bill to do that was killed by the House panel.
The Senate president's bill would make the fees optional, but it also would require local officials report publicly on what projects they're planning to reduce polluted runoff, and how they intend to pay for them. They'd have to report their progress annually, and if the Maryland Department of the Environment finds their plans or progress lacking, could withhold state funds for a variety of environmental projects.
Officials with the Maryland Association of Counties, though, told committee members that Miller's bill was too stringent. They asked for amendments reducing how often local governments have to report their progress, and easing the standards by which state regulators judge whether local governments are doing enough to reduce stormwater pollution. They also warned that the bill's threat of withholding state funds could jeopardize counties' bond ratings, causing serious fiscal problems for local governments and their taxpayers.
Spokesmen for builders' groups and owners of office parks and commercial developments said they feared the bill could shift the burden of bay cleanup unfairly to them. The current law provides some safeguards against that, they said, while Miller's bill does not.
No one from Carroll County appeared to testify, but the county issued a press release ahead of the hearing opposing Miller's bill.
Carroll is the only one of the 10 jurisdictions required to impose a fee that refused to do so, though Frederick County adopted only a token 1-cent charge. Carroll ultimately reached a settlement with state regulators by promising to devote funds from its property tax revenues to pay for stormwater projects.
While Miller's bill would formally lift the fee reqiurement, Carroll's press release warned that it "imposes additional regulatory requirements that could actually harm Carroll and significantly increase compliance costs without any additional environmental gains."
County Administrator Roberta Windham said in an interview that officials fear the reporting requirements could be so costly and complicated that the county might feel compelled to adopt a fee just to avoid them.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, offered lukewarm support for Miller's bill, saying they only pushed for the fee requirement three years ago because local governments were constantly claiming they lacked the funds to clean up their polluted runoff.
Alison Prost, Maryland director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said activists didn't care so much where the money came from, as long as stormwater got curtailed. It's the only source of bay pollution that continues to grow, she and other activists pointed out. But she acknowledged that there had been problems with the law, feeding into public misunderstanding and hostility toward the fees.
"The reality is the 2012 law isn't working on the ground the way it was intended to," Prost said. Legislative analysts have pointed out, for instance, that even with the fees only three of the 10 jurisdictions -- Baltimore city, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel -- have fully funded enough stream restorations and other runoff remediation projects to meet their pollution reduction targets.
Prost urged lawmakers not to accept any amendments that would weaken the bill. She and others urged the panel instead to strengthen the reporting requirements, and give community groups more say in assessing the job local governments are doing.
Annapolis activist John Flood, for one, said he suspected the push to repeal the so-called "rain tax" was really an effort to "slow the process down" of reducing polluted runoff.
The House committee's chairman, Del. Kumar P. Barve, said his panel -- which previously killed a series of stormwater fee repeal bills -- takes the issue "very seriously."
Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he would convene a broad-based group to review Miller's bill, but noted that "there are going to be some aspects we want to alter." And though there are less than two weeks left in the 90-day legislative session, Barve vowed this would be a priority for him.