A great divide over the `flush tax'

Letter from Annapolis

March 05, 2004|By Patricia Meisol

Who knew a dispute about the Continental Divide could hang up the Maryland state budget?

Who knew Maryland even had a Continental Divide?

It was a Tuesday, early in the morning before most things start in this town, and Republican senators had invited the new secretary of the environment, Ken Philbrick, to explain the $30 annual fee on water bills the governor proposes. Money from the "flush tax" will help replace old sewage plants whose waste is leaking into the Chesapeake Bay.

When Sen. John Hafer's turn came to speak, you could hear the indignation in his voice.

"I come from Western Maryland, Garrett County," he said, "and we live on the Continental Divide. Half the water goes to the Mississippi River." Why, he continued, should farmers whose waste flows into the Mississippi pay to clean up waste in the Chesapeake?

You wouldn't be alone if your first reaction was to laugh. Maryland Republicans including Hafer have a reputation for being ultraconservative; last year some even voted against their own anti-tax governor's desire to close a tax loophole.

But then Hafer mentioned that farmers fear they will be taxed by the Mississippi watershed, too. They are already upset over being asked to plant cover crops to reduce waste into the bay. And they haven't forgotten the 45-cent tax on their telephone bill some years back.

"I know how people are," he says.

Long story short, the local considerations that stand in the way of fees the governor seeks - to balance his budget or pay for items in the public trust - are formidable. It's at the point here where some of the secretaries passing through the caucus room are begging Republicans to take no official group position or, at least, refrain from criticizing the fees.

And if you listened to some of these Republicans holler about the impact of these fees on their districts, you might wonder if they would pay a bigger price voting for fees than would many Democrats.

Weekly in the minority party's caucus room on the fourth floor of the James Senate Building here, the secretaries of agriculture, of the environment, and of natural resources have been subjected to a firing squad.

And each time, there's a new stress reliever on the table. Red rubber fire hydrants that fit into the palm were donated one week by Sen. Sandra Shrader of Howard County. The few senators not on the South Beach or Atkins diets help themselves to doughnuts, but most are too wound up for coffee.

Boating fees. Fishing fees. Hunting fees. Birding fees. Wetlands development fees.

"Minitaxes," Sen. Don Munson of Hagerstown called them.

And even if the senators support user fees as a philosophy, there is what one of them calls the tipping point. Is the grief they expect from their own constituents worth the amount of money collected?

Take the proposed fee for birders and dog-walkers using state lands managed for hunting. It makes sense to natural resources officials who make hunters pay for the land to ask a new group of users to "share the pain," but not to lawmakers who put themselves in their constituents' sneakers.

"Stop the spin," ordered Sen. E.J. Pipkin of Queen Anne's County finally. "Are you telling me you are going to charge $10 for me to walk my dog?"

And when Natural Resources Secretary C. Ron Frank admitted that $300,000 of the $2.4 million from higher boater registration fees would go into the general state budget rather than pay for boater-related issues, heads shook and cheeks reddened in anger.

How many people does this affect? There are 150,000 registered boaters. Does this apply to jet skis? Yes. So, the fee to register a boat would range up to $40, from the current $12 to $24? "Outrageous!" said Pipkin, who represents parts of four counties on the water-locked Eastern Shore.

If boats are omnipresent on the Eastern Shore, so are wetlands. Somerset County, for instance, is 80 percent wetlands. Dorchester is half wetlands. You can imagine the Republican reaction to a proposed fee on wetlands development.

"If we do this," exclaimed Sen. Lowell Stoltzfus, the Republican who represents these counties, "there's no more housing!"

Luckily for the governor, the development fee is not as prohibitive as first feared. It's pegged to the floor plan, not the whole acreage.

And Stoltzfus is backing the flush tax - despite fairness issues on the Eastern Shore, too, where 19 towns that upgraded their sewage plants don't want to chip in for those who haven't. If the 66 biggest plants don't get fixed, the little ones will need another upgrade. And if the state can't meet its cleanup goals for the bay, a trillion-dollar economic engine, the federal government will step in. "I know what goes on behind the scenes to get upgrades," he said, "and I know the science; we got a problem."

Then there's the extra $200 license charge for waterfowl outfitters and hunting guides. They now cost $100.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.