Like many other politically interested individuals, I've been wondering for quite a while if the "rain tax" really is the "Obamacare" of Maryland environmental politics. Does the savvy politico who coined the term deserve the credit/blame for single-handedly turning a fee that only 10 jurisdictions in Maryland actually pay into a bona fide campaign game changer? Or are we overstating the power of the rain when we should be focusing on the unpopularity of the storm?
Long answer: The mid-February Goucher Poll asked half of our respondents a question about the stormwater management fee that included the words "rain tax," and the other half received the same question sans rain tax. Sixty-two percent of respondents who received the rain tax version opposed paying a stormwater management fee to offset the cost of environmental damage to the Chesapeake Bay caused by runoff; 36 percent supported it. On the other hand, respondents who received the question without the words "rain tax" were more divided on the issue: 51 percent opposed it, and 46 percent supported it.
Short answer: Labeling the stormwater management fee as a rain tax has an impact. But even without the rain tax label, a majority of Marylanders still oppose it.
What is it then? Is it simply tax and fee fatigue? Maybe, but given its relatively small monetary cost and limited geographic scope, why is this fee still a viable political sticking point well after the recent election season?
The compounding problem with the stormwater management fee goes back to the purpose of the fee and individual perspectives on sources of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. The Goucher Poll asked residents whether stormwater pollutants — such as runoff from surfaces like roofs, sidewalks or roads — are a major or minor source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay or not one at all. Only 35 percent of Marylanders view stormwater pollutants as a major source of pollution. Eleven percent do not think stormwater runoff is a pollutant at all, and 52 percent view it as only a minor source of pollution.
If you consider the results of both questions — regardless of phrasing — along with perceptions of stormwater pollution, the pattern is abundantly clear. Eighty-eight percent of those who think stormwater is not a source of pollution oppose the stormwater management fee, compared to 63 percent who think stormwater runoff is a minor source and oppose the fee. Comparatively speaking, only 33 percent of residents who view stormwater runoff as a major source of pollution oppose the stormwater fee.
Put simply, despite what the Environmental Protection Agency and leading state environmental groups may tell them, residents do not view themselves and/or runoff from their properties as a major cause of pollution in the bay. If most citizens don't think they have a significant part in creating the problem, they surely aren't going to want to pay a fee to fix it. Herein lies the rub.
No story about the rain tax would be complete without a mention of the role party affiliation plays. Among Democrats, 42 percent think stormwater runoff is a major source of pollution in the bay — about twice as many as Republicans (22 percent) and independents (21 percent). To sum up, Republicans and independents are less likely to view stormwater runoff as a source of pollution in the bay, and those who view stormwater runoff as either not a source or a minor source of pollution are the most opposed to the stormwater fee.
It should be noted that resident opposition to the stormwater fee is consistent across gender, race, income and age. Perhaps most interesting is that the opinions toward the stormwater fee of those who reside in the rain tax jurisdictions are nearly identical to those who live in rain-tax-free jurisdictions.
The real rub of the rain tax lies somewhere at the intersection of perceptions toward individual-level household contributions to pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and party affiliation — not to take anything away from the political maneuvering that made the rain tax the force in Maryland politics it is today.
Mileah Kromer is the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, which conducts the Goucher Poll. She is also an assistant professor of political science. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @goucherpoll.