Ehrlich may propose surcharge to help pay for sewer upgrades

Adding $2 to $3 a month on water bills would help protect bay, an aide says

December 09, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. may propose a surcharge on Marylanders' water and sewer bills next year to help pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in needed upgrades at sewage filtration plants, an aide told legislators yesterday.

Kenneth H. Masters, Ehrlich's chief legislative officer, said the administration is considering a possible charge of $2 to $3 a month as part of its strategy for protecting the Chesapeake Bay. He said the administration expects it to apply statewide -- not just in areas where upgrades are needed.

One opponent quickly labeled the proposed surcharge a "flush tax."

The surcharge was one of a series of initiatives Masters mentioned yesterday as he briefed the House Ways and Means Committee on Ehrlich's agenda for the legislative session that begins Jan. 14.

Other proposals include:

Eliminating a lobbyist's right to an automatic stay of any sanction imposed by the State Ethics Commission while appealing the panel's finding to the courts. The move would put the burden of proof on the lobbyist to convince a judge that the stay was justified.

Lowering the limit on noneconomic damages in malpractice suits, which stands at about $625,000, as a way of cutting doctors' insurance costs. Masters said the administration is looking at proposals that would take it as far down as its pre-1994 level of $350,000.

Making the killing of a victim or witness in a criminal case an aggravating factor for juries to consider when weighing whether to impose the death penalty. Masters said the proposal is intended to combat a problem of witness intimidation -- particularly in Baltimore City and Prince George's County.

Creating a new Department of Disability Services to fulfill a campaign promise.

Masters also said the administration is not planning to introduce new legislation on slot machines but is standing by the bill passed by the Senate this year as its preferred model. He emphasized that the governor remains open to other ideas for legalizing slots besides placing them at racetracks.

Some of the legislators' sharpest questions were provoked by the proposed surcharge, which Masters said was in the "conceptual" stage.

Del. Anne Healey, a Prince George's County Democrat, told Masters the proposal sounded "like a three-letter word that ends in x."

"We spell it `surcharge,'" Masters replied.

"We see it as a tax, no question," said Del. Sheila E. Hixson, the Montgomery County Democrat who heads the committee.

Healey, who hung the "flush tax" label on the proposal, said it was unfair to residents of Prince George's and Montgomery counties because they pay high rates to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

"We pay over our fair share on keeping our sewer system up to date," Healey said. A statewide surcharge, she said, would reward "those who did not invest in maintaining their systems."

By contrast, the surcharge idea received a positive reception from rural Republicans, who are usually cool to revenue-raising measures. Several Republicans who represent areas with failing sewer systems praised the idea, calling it a "user fee" rather than a tax.

"Everybody's got to make a contribution," said Del. D. Page Elmore, a Somerset County Republican. "We need a pristine bay, and that's what it'll take to do it."

Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called Ehrlich's proposal "encouraging news" and said Washington legislators should be willing to support it because they are part of the watershed.

"Clearly, everybody has a role to play in this," Coble said. "Everybody's part of the problem."

Maryland's malpractice insurance problem came to the fore in August, when Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland, which provides coverage for most of the state's doctors, won approval for premium increases averaging 28 percent.

The state medical society said the jump in premiums could drive some doctors to leave practice, particularly in high-risk specialties. It proposed cutting the "pain and suffering" cap to $350,000 and limiting attorney fees as a way to reduce costs to doctors.

Masters said yesterday that the administration will propose lowering the cap -- possibly as much as the physicians want.

Any move to reduce the cap would face opposition from the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association, which is seeking to keep current malpractice rules. The trial lawyers maintain that Medical Mutual raised its rates so much because its investments have performed poorly, not because claims have increased drastically.

The lobbyist measure would change a provision of the 2001 ethics law that has allowed Bruce C. Bereano and Gerard E. Evans to continue representing clients despite disciplinary penalties imposed by the ethics commission.

Evans' license revocation in the wake of a federal fraud conviction has since been overturned by a judge and is being appealed. Bereano's 10-month suspension for entering into a prohibited type of contract is on hold pending court action.

Sun staff writer M. William Salganik contributed to this article.

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