Don't flush this tax

March 08, 2004

HOW FAR DOES $2.50 go each month? A gallon of milk? A gallon and half of gas? A couple of orders of French fries? A small-sized designer coffee? It's not much, really.

Yet if everyone in Maryland pays an extra $2.50 a month on sewer and septic tank bills, they can finance the most substantial water quality improvements in the Chesapeake Bay since cleanup efforts began with phosphate bans of the mid-1980s.

Sewage treatment plants could be outfitted with the latest technology to remove nitrogen. Failing septic systems could be replaced - stemming another source of nitrogen pollution. Farmers could get help planting cover crops that prevent soil erosion, thus curbing nitrogen pollution.

It's a great bargain that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and legislative leaders support in concept. But partisan bickering over the details threatens to derail legislation that would seal the deal. No one in Maryland or the entire Chesapeake Bay region can afford to let that happen.

The dead zone created by nitrogen-fed algae grew last summer to cover 40 percent of the giant estuary - killing crabs and all the other vital marine life in its path. Jobs are lost, the state's economy is weakened, and the quality of life in the so-called land of pleasant living is deteriorating rapidly.

Much of the bickering stems from complaints that one group or another is unfairly put upon. Democrats protested that Mr. Ehrlich's original proposal left out the septic tank users. Municipal officials object to having to collect the fee, and suggest it be added to the state income tax. Legislators from the Washington suburbs and other communities say their constituents are already paying extra fees for treatment plant upgrades, and shouldn't have to pay more.

Such small, short-term thinking about such a huge, long-term problem. There hasn't even been any groundswell of opposition from voters, and yet their representatives are running for the hills. All involved, Republican and Democrat, urban and rural, should try to put their personal interests aside long enough to think through the consequences for future generations.

The health of the bay is little better - and is in many respects worse - than it was 20 years ago because the pollution curbs in place can't keep pace with the strain of ever-expanding residential and commercial development. Maryland lawmakers have a rare opportunity to check, and even reverse, that trend if everyone chips in a little. They would be foolish to let the moment pass.

Correction

The field for the NCAA basketball tournament will be announced Sunday. An editorial yesterday gave an incorrect date. The Sun regrets the error.

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