Water surcharge bill sails through House

Measure's future unsure as Senate rewrites it

General Assembly

March 20, 2004|By Ivan Penn and Michael Dresser | Ivan Penn and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The House of Delegates overwhelmingly passed Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposed "flush tax" yesterday, but lawmakers in the Senate spent the afternoon rewriting the bill, leaving its future uncertain.

Ehrlich had appeared well on his way to a solid environmental victory with a surprisingly strong 134-to-5 vote in the House on his proposal to add a surcharge to water bills. The money would pay to upgrade sewage systems and thus protect the Chesapeake Bay.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, chairwoman of the Environmental Matters Committee, said she was surprised and pleased by the strong margin in support of the initiative. It was, she said, "the most important vote in 25 years for the health of the bay."

The legislation passed with no debate after McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, helped craft a consensus-oriented bill broader than Ehrlich's original proposal. She helped gain Democratic support by making sure property owners who use septic systems also contribute to the bay restoration fund. She held Republican votes by agreeing not to charge those property owners directly, but through the businesses that clean their tanks.

But by late afternoon, a Senate committee moved to change virtually all of the proposal.

The Senate version would shift more of the financial burden for the sewage plant upgrades to businesses rather than to residential property owners, whether they use septic tanks or municipal sewage systems. Under the Senate proposal, residential property owners would pay $15 a year - half of the $30 fee proposed in the House legislation.

"Thirty dollars a year may mean nothing to some people and it may have a big impact on others," said state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environment Committee.

Commercial businesses would pay $360 a year while industrial firms would pay $2,400. The fees would appear on property tax bills, making schools, churches and state and local governments exempt.

Under the House legislation, businesses would pay on a sliding scale based on water use. The fees would appear on water bills.

The House version also includes Ehrlich's proposed reshaping of Maryland's approach to controlling the runoff of farm nutrients into the watershed. McIntosh said the agricultural initiative, popular among farmers because it would curb state inspectors' rights to enter their properties, helped build support for the bill. The measure passed the Senate as a separate bill.

McIntosh said the Senate's proposed overhaul of the bill "could be problematic." But she said she believes the chambers' differences could be worked out.

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