Flush tax

December 28, 2003

PERHAPS THE greatest frustration of Chesapeake Bay cleanup advocates is that they can't get government leaders to commit to moving quickly on the easiest part of the task.

Upgrading sewage treatment plants in the bay watershed to the highest level of technology available would remove enough polluting nutrients to get one-third of the cleanup job done.

But upgrades cost money, perhaps as much as $4 billion, and so far repeated pleas to the federal government to pony up the cash have been ignored.

Thus, it comes as welcome news that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is planning to call on Marylanders to demonstrate their willingness to do their share by kicking in a couple extra bucks or so a month as a surcharge on their utility bills to upgrade the state's 66 sewage treatment plants as quickly as possible.

This is the right approach from the standpoint of policy. Cleaning up after ourselves is the least that should be expected of those of us who live in the bay watershed. But it's also good politics. As Mr. Ehrlich and other regional leaders renew their appeals to Washington for a greater national commitment to restoring the health of the nation's largest estuary, Maryland can say it's leading by example.

Yet the surcharge has already come in for ridicule from Democrats in the General Assembly, who have dubbed it a "flush tax" that some think their constituents shouldn't have to pay. If such sniping is allowed to kill a badly needed initiative, those responsible should be ashamed of themselves.

We certainly are sympathetic to the notion that general government programs should be financed through an adequate system of broad-based taxes. Mr. Ehrlich's refusal thus far to consider an increase or expansion of the outmoded sales tax - relying instead on potential gaming revenues, miscellaneous user fees and deep program cuts - is wrongheaded and short-sighted.

But on the flush tax issue, the governor's got the right idea. Water and sewer rates are already assessed at the local level specifically to pay for those services. State and federal money is sometimes available to help with plant upgrades, but at the end of the day it's local ratepayers who bear most of the freight. For example, utility customers in Baltimore saw their rates rise by 9 percent this year to pay for the replacement of aging pipes that overflow and dump raw sewage into the local waterways.

Tying a bay cleanup tax to development also makes sense because much of the bay's pollution stems from the burden of so many suburbs sprouting in what once were rural areas.

Initial suggestions from legislators that some areas, including the Washington suburbs, should be exempted from such a tax were dismaying. This has to be a one-for-all, all-for-one proposition or it's doomed. What's more, a review of the 66 treatment plants in Maryland reveals only five are operating at peak efficiency in nitrogen removal-none in Prince George's or Montgomery counties.

So, we encourage Governor Ehrlich to ignore the catcalls and follow through on his plans. So what if they call it a flush tax? If it does the job, 20 years from now that's all anyone will remember.

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