ANNAPOLIS — Whether the “rain tax” is repealed, reformed or has the word “fee” dropped from its name, the federal mandate to clean up stormwater runoff in Maryland is here to stay.
Gov. Larry Hogan, and state Senators Jim Brochin, D-Baltimore County, and Wayne Norman, R-Cecil and Harford, on Tuesday presented identical bills to repeal the stormwater management fee in the Senate Education, Health and Environment Committee.
The measures received critical responses from committee members who said the bills’ sponsors were trying to repeal the mandated fees while leaving unaddressed the costs associated with treating stormwater.
“We recognize stormwater as a priority — doing these upgrades is a priority,” said Patrick Hogan, deputy legislative officer and speaker in the committee for the Republican governor. “What we are not agreeing with is forcing the counties to increase a tax to pay for it — if they can raise the money in other ways, then we support it.”
But members of the committee, including its vice chairman, state Senator Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, were unconvinced that the repeal bill would evoke much change from the current system. The bill still requires counties to pay for and implement stormwater remediation measures — it just allows them to do it without a state-warranted fee.
“Under this new framework, this new paradigm, has it magically switched from a ‘rain tax’ to a ‘stormwater reduction?’” Pinsky said to the first panel members. “You wouldn’t be sitting here today if you weren’t worried about what it’s called.”
Implemented in 2013 to address the Environmental Protection Agency’s “pollution diet,” the federal mandate requires programs to be in place by 2025 to manage urban runoff and keep pollutants from entering the Chesapeake Bay every time it rains.
Signed into law on May 2, 2012, by former Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, the original stormwater management fee did not specify how much each jurisdiction had to raise.
Instead, the law left the 10 selected local governments in control of how much they charged their constituents, so long as they actually raised money for local stormwater management.
That policy, created to allow localities to maintain their sovereignty from state and federal governments, enabled different jurisdictions to charge different amounts.
The problem: Some counties charge low fees, like Frederick’s one-penny-a-year fee that raised $950.86 in its first two years, while others charge high rates like Baltimore County’s flat rates per property type and owner, which raised $24 million in 2014 alone, according to the state’s Department of Legislative Services.
“Everybody is in a different place on how to do this — there isn’t uniformity. The juice just isn’t worth the squeeze,” said Brochin.
Brochin said his repeal bill would take away the state’s mandate to charge a fee, allowing the counties to raise the money in whatever way they choose. If passed, the bill would take effect on July 1, 2015.
Meanwhile, state Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s, is pushing a stormwater management reform bill that will remove the mandated fee and instead have the specified local governments submit a plan that would outline how they were financially addressing the urban runoff problem.
“Certain local governments have to take action to meet their federal stormwater permit requirements,” Miller said in a press release on Feb. 25. “This legislation maintains flexibility for county governments while still ensuring that they can meet their obligations to protect and cleanup the Bay.”
Miller’s bill, supported by 30 members of the Senate, would also require state-owned properties to pay a stormwater remediation fee if the local government pays the same fee and would keep local governments from redistributing local spending to address it. There are 17 senators supporting Gov. Hogan’s repeal.
Miller’s bill, SB863, is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Education, Health and Environment committee on March 10.