ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s sewer surcharge bill has drawn support from swarms of environmentalists, businesses, government officials and citizens, all wanting to jump on the bandwagon, and its success appeared to be guaranteed.
But some fear that the list of amendments proposed for the measure may derail the legislation, and that in this case, overpopularity may mean the death of a good bill.
“The governor prefers not to see the bill become a Christmas tree with dozens of amendments hanging off of it,” said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell. “We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
The proposed legislation would levy a $2.50 monthly surcharge on household sewer bills and related charges on businesses to upgrade the state’s wastewater facilities with an eye to reducing nutrient deposits in the Chesapeake Bay. The measure could remove about 7.5 million pounds of nitrogen from the bay annually, the administration said.
Many bills receive this much backing, said Cleanup Coalition Chairman Terry Harris, “but I have never seen it quite like this before.”
About four years ago, a similarly popular brownfields bill died in the last minutes of session through excessive changes, Harris said.
“It’s the kind of (situation) where everyone realizes, ‘This is a good bill,’ and with all of that support you want to take advantage of the opportunity,” he said.
Some have asked that the fund include provisions for a crop cover program, a centuries-old technique of integrating soil-enhancing crops between harvests to decrease erosion and nutrient runoff.
Others say this is a rare chance to deal with Maryland’s disproportionately unclean air.
“This administration is taking a little baby step when they have the opportunity to take a huge step,” said Sen. Sharon Grosfeld, D-Montgomery.
But the most controversial ornamentation is a push to clean up septic tanks, which some lawmakers say will force their opposition of the bill.
“We want to make sure septics are included,” said Gigi Kellett of Maryland Public Interest Research Group, adding the amendment would “strengthen the bill so that the Legislature can only pass it.”
Bay cleanup has to be taken “one step at a time,” said Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Caroline, and any plans to include septic tanks would not be “well thought out at this time.”
Colburn also threatened to retract his co-sponsorship of the bill if the measure was added.
But including the estimated 400,000 septic users could net about $12 million annually, which could partially fund a cover crop program, said the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Taxing septic tank users is part of finding “the fairest way to spread the cost among the most people” and reduce individual fees, said Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, chairwoman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
Hollinger said she was especially concerned for Baltimore City’s poor, whose sewer rates already were increased 48 percent since 1998 to meet Federal and State Consent Degree standards.
But Republican lawmakers say the push is really the Democrats’ attempt to topple the legislation.
“(These are) all moves by the Democratic Party to defeat the bill or to take credit away from the governor and his administration,” Colburn said.
And the bill was “narrowly tailored to deal with one source of pollution,” Ehrlich policy adviser Bernie Marczyk told the Senate committee, and including other measures could “fog the issue.”
Making the inclusion of septic tanks a make-or-break issue is a matter of concern, said foundation Maryland Director Kim Coble, but she is “optimistic.”
And she may have cause to be.
Many organizations say they will support the bill with or without septics.
And the House Environmental Matters Committee set a precedent for bipartisan agreement Thursday, unanimously passing its version of the bill, which included septic tanks.
The draft bill included other proposed amendments to change the criteria for awarding grants, to exempt residents who cannot afford the surcharge and more, while many others were rejected.
But the legislation’s success in one committee does not assure passage on the Assembly floor, where partisan politics and constituent loyalties are much more intense.
But despite the divided loyalties, the bill will likely get through the Legislature because of its central theme, Coble said.
“What nobody is debating is that we need to do something about nitrogen loading in the bay,” she said.
And because of the legislation’s potential impact on what is arguably the state’s greatest resource, Chesapeake Bay Commission’s Ann Swanson pleaded with lawmakers to take all necessary steps to ensure its passage.
“This bill is worth working with to make it work,” she said. “Don’t lose it this session.”