If there were any doubt that the drive to repeal Maryland's stormwater management fee, AKA "rain tax," is all politics and no substance, it was erased Wednesday when Carroll County, the jurisdiction that has fought hardest against the levy, balked at a bill to repeal it. That's right. Carroll's government has concluded that its true obligations under the current and supposedly draconian law are actually less stringent than those in a repeal bill championed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and cheered by Gov. Larry Hogan. But that's what you get when you combine a "rain tax" that is not in fact a tax on rain with a repeal bill that is not in fact a repeal.
A quick recap: The Environmental Protection Agency has put Maryland and other Chesapeake Bay watershed states on a "pollution diet" to reduce the flow of various kinds of contaminants into the troubled estuary. Among them is stormwater runoff — rainwater that picks up pollutants like oil, fertilizer, animal waste and the like as it flows over impervious surfaces like roofs, parking lots and roads and into streams, rivers and eventually the bay. It is the only major source of bay pollution that is increasing, as it is tied closely with the region's population growth. The EPA required Maryland's nine largest counties and Baltimore City to meet targets for reducing such polluted runoff, and three years ago, environmentalists pushed for a mandatory stormwater management fee for those jurisdictions to ensure that they would have the money to pay for the stormwater mitigation projects needed to meet those goals.
None of this was particularly well explained to the public, and the nature of what's really going on was quickly distorted by opponents — Mr. Hogan prominently among them — who called it a "rain tax" enough times that half of Marylanders think they are actually taxed more or less depending on how much it rains, according to a recent poll. Mr. Hogan made few specific promises during last year's campaign, but repealing the stormwater fee was at the top of the list.
The trouble is, counties did not actually have to assess a fee in the first place. Carroll County worked out a deal with the O'Malley administration — which championed the fee rather than mocking it — in which it would dedicate existing revenue to funding the projects. Frederick County effectively did the same thing in assessing a fee of one cent per property. Harford County recently repealed its fee, too. The counties are still on the hook to pay for the projects needed to meet the EPA's requirements, and without a dedicated fee they will have to rob from schools, police, street repairs, libraries and such to pay for it. Not the choice we'd make, but if that's what residents of those counties want, so be it.
Nonetheless, having trumped up all this outrage, rain tax opponents couldn't very well walk away from the issue. Enter Mr. Miller, who offered the idea that the state should repeal the requirement that these counties institute a fee (which wasn't really a requirement in the first place) but instead would force them to report what they planned to do to satisfy the EPA and how they would pay for it. It passed the Senate unanimously, and Governor Hogan hailed it as a "tremendous victory for the taxpayers of Maryland."
Apparently he didn't check with the Carroll County commissioners before popping the champagne. They weren't the only ones to object to the bill — the Maryland Association of Counties is complaining about the reporting requirements, and homebuilders worry that the relatively balanced approach of the original fee will give way to counties dumping the costs entirely on them. But the Carroll commissioners' opposition, to be sure, was rich.
As they see it, the repeal "could actually harm Carroll and significantly increase compliance costs without any additional environmental gains" because the county would be subject to more stringent requirements for explaining its plans and financing. It might just be better to institute a fee, they concede.
So there you have it, straight from the epicenter of rain tax derision: Repealing the stormwater fee requirement is worse than keeping it. Perhaps now we can drop this whole charade, admit that the state has to do something about polluted stormwater and have an adult conversation about the best way to pay for it. But for what may be the first time in recent memory, we find ourselves agreeing with the Carroll commissioners: Perhaps it's best to leave well enough alone.