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Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.

Poll finds Marylanders confused over ‘rain tax’

  • March 16, 2015

Half of all Marylanders polled in a recent survey believe that the required stormwater management fees mean that they will be taxed every time it rains.

When told that the so called “rain tax” had nothing to do with taxing the rain and was a charge to curb and treat polluted runoff, 46 percent of those respondents said they would support the fees, and only one-third insisted they would not.

The survey also showed that 84 percent of respondents believed the water-pollution problems in the Chesapeake Bay can be fixed, but only 39 percent of respondents believe their local jurisdiction had the funds to tackle the problem.

The Clean Water, Healthy Families coalition sponsored the telephone poll of 594 Maryland residents, which was conducted by Annapolis-based OpinionWorks. The coalition includes the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Blue Water Baltimore and several river keeper groups. The environmentalists saw a disconnect between the desire for clean water and the antipathy toward the stormwater fee, said the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Alison Prost.  They wanted to show that residents didn’t oppose a fee to help pay for clean water; what they opposed was an additional tax for unclear purposes.

“The minute we got people to understand that it was local, dedicated fund to clean up polluted runoff, and not more money going to the state, it was a no-brainer,” Prost said. “The opponents were spreading so much misinformation.”

Steve Raabe, the principal of OpinionWorks, said that, as a longtime observer of public opinion, it was rare to find such a disconnect between the facts and the public’s understanding.

One respondent said: “Man don't own the rain and God sends it when he wants to, and I don't think anyone should make money off of that.”

Another said,  “I don't think it is right that people should be taxed based on something that they cannot control like runoff from the rain.”

A third said, “I feel that if you tax people when it rains, what about when it snows, when it is windy, or when there is a hurricane?”

Those comments dovetail with news reports after the Maryland gubernatorial election in 2014. Many voters said they were voting for the Republican candidate, Larry Hogan, because outgoing governor Martin O’Malley over-taxed residents. (O’Malley’s lieutenant governor, Anthony Brown, was running on the Democrat side.) The “rain tax” was frequently mentioned as a problematic cost, though 75 percent of respondents in Raabe’s poll admitted they did not know how much their fee would be.
That’s not surprising. The fee for the 10 largest jurisdictions has changed many times since the law authorizing it was passed in 2012. Some counties, like Carroll, refused to pay it initially. Others, like Frederick, charged a penny a home. Harford and Baltimore counties began plans to roll back the fee after Larry Hogan won his election. Baltimore City originally planned to use its fee to offset property taxes. Anne Arundel County’s former executive vetoed the fee, then the council over-rided her veto, and then a new county executive, Steve Schuh, worked with the council to make yet more changes. All of that happened in Annapolis, which already had a stormwater utility fee and was not part of the 10 required jurisdictions.

Now, the requirement for the fee is in limbo. Several communities have taken it upon themselves to address stormwater without being required to do so. Salisbury and Berlin, both on the Eastern Shore and not part of the 10 jurisdictions, have approved stormwater utilities.

Compared to the contentious stormwater fee, Maryland’s efforts to charge more for sewage treatment passed relatively easily. In 2004, Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, signed the flush fee (or flush tax) into law. The fee/tax added about $30 to each homeowner’s water bill. The fee was raised once already. Everyone had to pay — even those who were on septic systems.

Prost said the original thought was to have a similar mechanism for stormwater. But, she said, “there was resistance from stakeholders and the administration.”

With 90 percent of the polluted runoff coming from the 10 largest jurisdictions, and particularly with Baltimore and its suburbs contributing such a large amount, the backers thought that targeting those counties would be more fair as well as more palatable. Rural legislators, though, turned out to be some of the most vocal opponents, even though their constituents don’t have to pay it.

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.

Read more articles by Rona Kobell


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Hillel B on March 17, 2015:

Thanks for explaining this!

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