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Chesapeake Bay's surprising wins

Here's a sentence that nobody expected to be written this week: The 2015 legislative session turned out pretty well for the Chesapeake Bay and some other environmental causes. How that happened almost defies logic.

While the state budget — and the acrimony and politics that surrounded it during the last few days of the Maryland General Assembly's 90-day session — stole the headlines, bay-related initiatives quietly advanced and, in some cases, produced bipartisan agreements. No single piece of legislation proved as unexpectedly beneficial to the cause as the so-called "rain tax repeal" — a description that requires quotation marks because, frankly, not a single word within them is accurate.

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First, there was never a tax on rain, and second, there was never a need for repeal as the counties involved already had the option of using other funds to pay for federally-mandated stormwater pollution reductions. But finally, and most astoundingly, the legislation actually strengthens the law. Strange but true: It now imposes stricter reporting requirements and greater accountability. Now there will be potential penalties if Baltimore and the nine counties fail to demonstrate how they can meet remediation goals.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued a statement this week calling the "repeal" a "major victory for the Chesapeake Bay." That's a pretty telling love letter coming from the advocacy group that pushed so hard for the "rain tax" in the first place. That Gov. Larry Hogan continues to speak favorably of this non-repeal repeal demonstrates a certain, um, political flexibility on his part — but one that we hasten to endorse.

That willingness to compromise on environmental issues is starting to seem something of a pattern. Earlier in the session, Mr. Hogan agreed to tough new rules on phosphorus that Eastern Shore poultry farmers had initially protested as costly and burdensome restrictions because they would prevent some farmers from spreading chicken manure as fertilizer on their fields as they've done in the past. Mr. Hogan initially pulled Gov. Martin O'Malley's version of those regulations but eventually agreed to standards that, while delayed two years, are largely what his predecessor sought. By some estimates, Mr. Hogan's agriculture secretary, former Baltimore County Councilman Joe Bartenfelder, has actually been a more effective and enthusiastic advocate for the so-called Phosphorus Management Tool than Mr. O'Malley's was.

Meanwhile, lawmakers agreed to place a two-year moratorium on the use of hydraulic fracturing technology to drill for natural gas in Western Maryland. That's a victory for clean water, land and air — not to mention for the region's tourism industry and its thousands of jobs. Whether Mr. Hogan vetoes the bill or not will likely prove irrelevant. The measure passed by such a large majority that even if the governor pulls out his veto pen, lawmakers can easily block enabling regulations from moving forward between now and next January when they can then return to Annapolis and override his veto.

Finally, legislators adopted tougher penalties for oyster poaching, which is helpful to the growing aquaculture industry, and a ban on personal care items like facial cleansers or teeth whiteners that contain microbeads — tiny bits of plastic that enter the ecosystem and harm marine life after they drain down the sink or are flushed down the toilet.

Considering that bay advocates entered the session worried that Annapolis would be a battleground on environmental issues pitting them against a governor who promised deregulation, the reality has been a pleasant surprise. Mr. Hogan may yet prove to be a backslider (on the state's anti-sprawl "smart growth" program, which Republicans generally don't favor, or perhaps the pending regulations reducing air pollution from coal-fired power plants he yanked when he first took office) but for the moment, he may actually have opened some minds.

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