Webster's defines a "straw man" as "an argument or opponent set up so as to be easily refuted or defeated." We can find no better example than Gov. Larry Hogan's crusade against what he calls Maryland's "rain tax," which led this week to his introduction of legislation to repeal a law that he claims taxes "Marylanders for the rain that falls on the roof of their homes." He has been incredibly successful in using this fallacious rhetorical tactic, as evidenced by a new Washington Post poll showing 65 percent support for lowering the fee. What he's doing is surely good politics — much better than his effort to slow down increases in education spending, which 69 percent of those polled by The Post, including a majority of Hogan voters, oppose. But it is entirely substance-free.
For starters, Maryland does not and never has taxed the rain. What it does is levy fees on property owners to pay for projects that mitigate the flow of polluted stormwater into streams, rivers and eventually the Chesapeake Bay. The rain picks up many of those pollutants — from spilled motor oil to pet droppings — when it flows across impervious surfaces like driveways and roads, and if it is not managed properly, it flows directly into waterways without first being filtered through the soil or other means. Improperly managed stormwater is one of the chief sources of pollutants flowing into the Chesapeake Bay, and Maryland — along with the other states in the bay watershed — are under an Environmental Protection Agency mandate to mitigate it. The legislation Mr. Hogan is seeking to repeal provided counties with a mechanism to pay for projects to help them comply with the EPA's requirements.
Mr. Hogan has, on occasion, mounted a somewhat sophisticated argument against the legislation, saying it was unfair to place the burden for this particular program on just the 10 counties covered by the EPA mandate and improper for the state to dictate to those counties how they should raise the money to comply. (Of course, the counties themselves were initially, if quietly, champions of the legislation because it allowed local leaders to blame the state for forcing them to raise taxes or fees.) The logical conclusion of this reasoning would be for the state to institute a new tax or fee to pay for the projects, but the governor has suggested no such thing.
That's because Mr. Hogan's real purpose has been to use the program as a symbol of a rapacious and idiotic state government, and for that, it is much more effective to convey the impression that the state is taxing its residents for a meteorological phenomenon over which they have no control. He did it through his Change Maryland organization before he entered the gubernatorial race. He did it in his first campaign ad of the general election season when he included a clip of a man standing in a downpour as a narrator said Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown "even taxed the rain." He did it in his State of the State speech when he declared that "taxing struggling and already overtaxed Marylanders for the rain that falls on the roof of their homes was a mistake that needs to be corrected." The implication in those and other instances when Mr. Hogan used the term was that taxpayers are on the hook for more or less depending on the weather, which of course is not at all true. Some counties based all or part of their fees on the amount of impervious surface on a particular piece of property, but that is an altogether different thing — and a perfectly sensible one.
Now, having created this boogeyman of the "rain tax," Mr. Hogan is proposing to slay it through legislation that does absolutely nothing to change the status quo. The governor is not trying to forbid counties from implementing fees to meet the EPA requirements. He just wants to stop requiring them to do so — which has actually been the case all along. True, former Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler at one point threatened to levy $10,000-a-day fines against Carroll County for its refusal to enact a stormwater fee, but the O'Malley administration's Department of the Environment determined that the county's plan to dedicate property tax and other revenues to the cause instead was proper. Unless Mr. Hogan intended to reverse that ruling, the counties are perfectly safe to reduce or eliminate their fees no matter what happens to the governor's legislation.
Counties that want to levy the fees can continue to do so. Counties that would prefer to shortchange priorities like schools and police in order to pay for stormwater mediation projects are free to do that as well. The governor's effort is, thus, pure pandering to a constituency he spent months creating. Somehow, we don't think this is what people had in mind when they voted to "Change Maryland."