Gov. Larry Hogan's campaign pledge to repeal Maryland's so-called rain tax got a Senate hearing Tuesday, where a Republican county executive, a parade of business owners, and even one Democratic senator called the mandatory pollution cleanup fees unfair, burdensome and unnecessary.
Patrick Hogan, the governor's deputy legislative director, said the Republican administration wants to free Baltimore and large suburban counties from having to charge homeowners and businesses fees to pay for reducing stormwater runoff from streets, buildings and parking lots.
"The governor and this entire administration is committed to protecting our waterways," said Hogan, the governor's half-brother. "We just feel like citizens shouldn't be taxed on this issue."
The 2012 law mandating stormwater management fees stirred intense controversy and became a political lightning rod in last year's election, helping Hogan and other Republicans into office. Harford County promptly repealed its fee, and other counties have moved to reduce or eliminate theirs.
Revenue from the fees go to fund projects that the city and large counties must undertake to reduce stormwater pollution of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. But owners of businesses with large buildings or parking lots complained of being charged steep fees, even when they already take measures to curb runoff from their property.
"I think we need a different way of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay," said Larry Smith, an executive with Belts Logistics Services. Smith said the Baltimore-based distribution company had to pay nearly $45,000 in stormwater management fees for big warehouses it owns in the city and in Howard County.
Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who's put in his own repeal bill, said he was moved to do so because of "inequities" he saw in how jurisdictions levied different fees and spent them in different ways. Republican Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said he's paying for stormwater cleanup with other tax revenue the county collects.
But Democratic members of the Education, Health and Environment Committee questioned how local governments could fund costly stream restorations and storm-drain retrofits without the fees. And environmentalists warned that local officials might backslide in their bay cleanup obligations. With or without the fees, local governments are required to find a way to pay for the projects.
"It's all about a tax shift, as opposed to a tax reduction," suggested Sen. James Rosapepe, a Prince George's County Democrat.
Owners of environmental consulting firms said they've seen their business grow as counties collecting fees plan more stormwater projects. Without a continued stream of such funding, they warned the pace may falter.
Though critics claim that Maryland is the only state to tax the rain, legislative analysts note there are roughly 1,500 stormwater fees levied by local or regional governments in 40 states and the District of Columbia.
Baltimore and seven of the state's largest counties collected $111 million in stormwater fees last year, according to legislative analysts. But the 10 largest jurisdictions estimate they need to spend nearly $800 million in the next three years alone to meet state and federal pollution control requirements, the analysts added.
Despite the debate, the Senate seems poised to repeal the fee requirement, albeit with a few strings attached. A "reform" bill that lifts the fee mandate, put in by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., has 37 cosponsors, more than enough to pass.
But fee repeal faces an uphill battle in the House, where Speaker Michael E. Busch has declared his opposition. And Del. Kumar P. Barve, chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, suggested he'll be demanding to know why repeal is even necessary when the bill comes up before his panel Wednesday.
The attorney general's office has advised that current law already gives local governments the flexibility to reduce or repeal stormwater fees as long as they earmark other funds to pay for needed pollution remediation efforts.
The office approved alternative funding schemes by Carroll and Frederick counties, who opted either to levy no fee or impose a token one-cent charge.
"I just don't know how much more clear we can get than that," Barve said. And if no one can offer another good reason for acting, he added, repealing the fee "drops down to the level of feel-good legislation."