The 'rain tax' debate

With the 2014 general election almost exactly one year away, at least five of Maryland's gubernatorial candidates are scheduled to debate environmental issues for the first time tomorrow in Annapolis. No doubt questions will range from smart growth to climate change to the future of the Chesapeake Bay, but surely no topic is likely to prove more contentious than what Maryland should do about polluted run-off from city and suburban streets.

Voters would be wise to pay attention to what the candidates have to say on the subject as it may prove the best way to sort those who claim to care about clean water from those who are willing to do something about it. The political grandstanding over the state's "rain tax" has been one of the more disheartening developments to hit the local environmental movement in recent years.


Stormwater runoff is a significant and growing source of pollution and, after regulating many other sources of water pollution from sewage to animal waste and industrial chemicals over the years, the General Assembly approved a law that requires the state's 10 largest subdivisions to create a dedicated fund to address the problem. Baltimore and the nine counties were given flexibility to devise a tax or fee to fund efforts to reduce the hundreds of thousands of pounds of pollutants from nitrogen and phosphorus to toxic chemicals and sediments that get swept up and dumped into creeks, rivers and eventually, the Chesapeake Bay.

Slowing down runoff, containing it, allowing it to slowly infiltrate the ground, investing in both hard infrastructure (such as porous pavers) and vegetative plantings (like trees or rainwater gardens), would be the focus of such efforts. And this is hardly a trend that is unique to Maryland. Many other states and local governments are involved in similar efforts. In Virginia, for instance, at least 18 local jurisdictions have approved fees or taxes aimed at better managing runoff while the state has dedicated $35 million for the cause as well.

The reality is that states and counties have had no real choice but to take this path. A dedicated fund is clearly a necessity if local governments are to meet environmental standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Water Act. Ultimately, pollution is pollution, and this is really no different from the kind that runs out of a factory pipe — except that the polluters are many, not one, and so the fix must be broadly financed.

Unfortunately, Maryland has done a horrible job at explaining the necessity of this, and environmental advocates haven't made much headway either. That's given rise to the "rain tax" protests that have found a willing audience, particularly in the more politically conservative counties where an anti-tax, anti-regulatory narrative plays well anyway. They have often exaggerated costs and ridiculed mainstream science.

The risk now is that, amid all the uproar and misrepresentation, the candidates for governor will desert the cause of clean water and protecting human health. Republican candidates for governor have already lined up against it, and even Democratic leaders in the state legislature are talking about amending the law in the 90-day General Assembly session that begins in little over two months. That may cause some of the Democrats' gubernatorial candidates to get cold feet, too.

That's why candidate forums like tomorrow's event sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and 1000 Friends of Maryland are so critically important. It's one thing to claim to support the Chesapeake Bay, it's quite another to make the tough decisions necessary to protect it. And make no mistake, these are difficult calls.

Recently, the Maryland Department of the Environment notified Frederick County Commissioners that their too-cute-by-half protest of the stormwater fee — a 1-cent tax that will raise all of $487 annually — could prove costly. Not only is it "insufficient" to finance pollution controls, but the county will be slapped with tens of thousands of dollars in fines as well.

Maryland's next governor ought to be prepared to stand behind that decision and explain why it's in the public's best interest. It's reasonable to debate how to best address the problems caused by stormwater runoff, it's not reasonable to thumb your nose at them — not if you are serious about protecting Maryland's prized water resources and providing a decent natural legacy for the next generation.