ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s sewer surcharge bill was passed overwhelmingly in the House of Delegates Friday, despite fears that the inclusion of septic tanks would derail it.
“There won’t be 141 votes,” Environmental Matters Committee Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh predicted earlier that day.
But the count was pretty close, 134-5 with two abstaining.
The administration’s bill would add $2.50 on household sewer bills and related charges on businesses to finance the upgrade of the 66 largest wastewater treatment plants in Maryland.
Supporters hailed the bill as a giant step in reducing nitrogen loading to the Chesapeake Bay, a chief cause of destructive algal blooms and habitat destruction. Wastewater discharges have been blamed for about 28 percent of the estuary’s nutrient pollution.
“For 30 years, we’ve done a lot of talking, walking around and pounding our chests” and lamented the condition of the bay, said Minority Whip Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert. “Finally this governor has given us something we can be proud of; (he) has shown tremendous leadership.”
But though the bill had drawn near-unanimous support from the outset, the committee’s inclusion of a charge on septic tank users ruffled feathers, including the governor’s.
“When you add septics, for some reason, people go nuts,” said McIntosh, D-Baltimore.
The septic provision targets people who are already financially strapped, said Delegate Rudolph Cane, D-Wicomico, who voted against the bill.
The surcharge would add $120 to the estimated $160 biennial septic cleaning tab that septic users, mostly in rural communities, already pay.
Septics have also been a contentious issue in the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, where the Senate version of the bill is being heard.
On Friday, the committee heard a proposition to levy the surcharge on real property taxes to increase revenue and equally spread costs.
The amendment would charge annual flat fees of $15 on residential property, $360 on commercial property and $2,400 on industrial property, which is estimated to raise more than $70,000 for bay cleanup.