ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s sewer surcharge bill got a bipartisan push through the Maryland Senate Thursday despite a controversial inclusion of septic systems.
“I think this is fabulous,” said Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County. “It shows that this Legislature is committed to cleaning up the bay.”
Lawmakers voted 38-9, mostly along party lines, but there were some surprises.
Six Republicans voted for the measure as a show of support for the state’s Republican governor and support for legislation to channel millions of dollars into Chesapeake Bay cleanup.
“The real reason we had to do this today is because the governor had to step in,” said Sen. Edward Pipkin, R-Queen Anne’s. “If we were getting our money from the federal government, we would not have to do this.”
Ehrlich’s measure would add $2.50 monthly to sewer bills to upgrade the state’s 66 largest wastewater treatment plants with an eye to reducing direct nitrogen loading to the bay.
But the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, which Hollinger heads, changed the bill to charge a flat $2.50 fee on residential users of sewer systems, septic systems and holding tanks.
The inclusion of septic tanks has been the sticking point among environmentalists, political parties and the governor.
The partisan overtones of the vote Thursday also stirred some minority resentment over the GOP’s powerlessness in a body that is 70 percent Democratic.
“We obviously have little input into this process,” Minority Whip Andrew Harris, R-Baltimore County, said earlier Thursday when asked about the upcoming vote.
Harris vented his anger on a Chesapeake Bay Foundation representative distributing “fact” sheets on state septic systems before the session. He said the information on the sheet was faulty and environmentalists should not lie to get the legislation passed.
“You guys are scientists. You should be ashamed of yourselves,” he shouted. “This is embarrassing.”
Republican senators, who mostly represent rural constituencies, claimed there was an added hardship for septic users, charged Democrats with trying to sabotage the governor’s bill and said the logistics of collecting septic fees were unclear.
Ehrlich and GOP lawmakers have also questioned whether charging sewer and septic customers equally was fair when septic tanks contribute considerably less pollution to the bay than sewers.
“I’m voting for this bill reluctantly,” said Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset.
Unlike other GOP senators, Stoltzfus said, he believes households on septic tanks should be charged, but only after a proper study of the issue was done.
“I think we’re jumping the gun here,” he said earlier. “Is $2.50 fair? We don’t know.”
Republican hopes of removing septic systems from the bill now rest on negotiations between House and Senate lawmakers in conference committee.
“I’m really hoping that when it comes back,” said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Cecil, “it will be in the form that the governor proposed.”