House panel approves broad bill to clean up bay

General Assembly

March 12, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A House committee approved sweeping legislation yesterday to clean up the Chesapeake Bay after Republican and Democratic legislators compromised on a controversial charge on septic systems.

The legislation, proposed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to pay for the upgrade of sewage systems that pollute the bay, passed the Environmental Affairs Committee unanimously -- a sign that it is likely to win overwhelming approval in the House next week.

The legislation, known in Annapolis as the "flush tax" bill, left the committee in a much broader form than in which it arrived.

The bill retains the $2.50-a-month surcharge on sewer and water bills proposed by Ehrlich, but it has been expanded so that 420,000 users of septic systems would share the burden.

It also incorporates another bill proposed by Ehrlich that would ease some regulatory burdens on Maryland farmers to encourage their participation in efforts to control nutrient runoff. Committee Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, said she wanted to craft an omnibus bill dealing with different aspects of nitrogen pollution.

The key to the unanimous approval was McIntosh's decision to accept a compromise proposed by Del. Barry Glassman, a Harford County Republican, on how to impose a charge on septic systems.

McIntosh had been prepared to amend the bill to include a $30-a-year charge on septic systems, to be collected by the counties. But Glassman convinced her that the same result could be achieved by increasing the charges paid by companies that pump out septic tanks when they bring the effluent to a sewage treatment plant.

This indirect form of taxing septic owners, who can expect to pay higher pump-out charges, proved acceptable to delegates of both parties.

McIntosh said her goal from the start was to produce a bill with bipartisan support.

Sixty percent of the money from the extra charge on septic waste disposal would be used for providing grants and loans to Marylanders with failing septic systems. Forty percent would be used to bolster Maryland's "cover crop" program, which subsidizes farmers' winter plantings to help curb nutrient runoff.

Former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, who testified for the Ehrlich bill in the Senate yesterday, praised the House action.

"One of the most effective ways to reduce nitrogen going into the bay is through a cover crop program," said Hughes, a longtime advocate for the bay.

Incorporating Ehrlich's farm nutrient proposal into the bay restoration bill gave rural Republican lawmakers added incentive to get on board.

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