ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, have reinvented the art of compromise.
Both parties said Tuesday they are willing to negotiate on the governor’s marquee environmental bill — a sewer surcharge to fund Chesapeake Bay cleanup — but barely budged from their stances on the inclusion of septic systems.
An unchanged Senate version of the bill will make it onto the floor today, said Hollinger, chairwoman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, which heard the bill.
“It’s too late to come up with a whole new bill,” she said.
Senators could change the bill on the floor, she acknowledged, but said “I don’t know that we’re going to end up with both sides accepting everything.”
The decision came a day after Hollinger and the governor had agreed to equivalent, possibly lesser charges on both sewer and septic systems, she said.
“I really felt that there was room for compromise,” she said.
Ehrlich’s bill charged sewer users only, but the committee added a flat $30 annual charge on all residential users of sewer and septic systems. It would also give the administration a year to devise a means of fee collection.
The House bill, amended to include an 8-cent-per-gallon charge on the “honey dippers” who pump out septic tanks, was supported by Ehrlich but rejected by the Senate committee.
But the governor said Tuesday he will not support a bill that levies equal charges on the different systems, since septic tanks account for only 4 percent of nitrogen loading to the bay and its tributaries.
Wastewater treatment plants account for nearly 30 percent, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“We think an equal charge is inappropriate,” Ehrlich said, adding he may offer support if the fee for septic systems is “appropriate” and “much smaller.”
The governor had given a different impression at their Monday night meeting, Hollinger said.
“I keep getting different messages,” she said.
The senator made similar charges last week and had tabled the bill after the governor failed to rustle up Republican support for the legislation.
Senate leadership and environmentalists called for movement of the blocked measure through the General Assembly Tuesday morning.
“Instead of holding the bill in committee, bring it to the floor and let the floor decide,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert. “Bottom line is we’re running out of time and we need to get this bill passed.”
If the bill is passed by the Senate, negotiations between the House, Senate and the governor can begin within a conference committee, and an agreement reached on septic systems.
“It would be unfortunate to lose this bill over a few dollars if septic tanks are included or not,” said the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Kim Coble. “The voice that is loudest right now is the voice of the bay and it’s saying we need to pass this bill, this year.”