Senate's `flush tax' bill to go to floor today

Governor firmly opposes its direct septic surcharge

General Assembly

April 07, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Senate Democrats plan to bring Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposed sewer bill surcharge to the floor of the Senate today in spite of a disagreement with the governor over their plan to apply an equivalent fee to septic systems.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said yesterday that she plans to move forward with the bill even after the administration disavowed what she considered a tentative accord on the so-called "flush tax."

The Baltimore County Democrat had previously held the bill in committee, saying she was unwilling to proceed without the support of Republicans. She said yesterday that she will try to win passage of the bill with Democratic votes, if necessary.

Ehrlich has identified the legislation, which would generate hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade sewage treatment plants in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, as his No. 1 environmental priority this year.

As proposed by the governor, the bill would have imposed a $2.50-a-month charge on residential water bills, but would not have affected users of septic systems. Democratic leaders in both chambers have said they want to include septic systems but have proposed different methods of collecting the money.

Hollinger had said Monday that she had a tentative agreement with the administration on how to deal with septic systems. But by yesterday morning, it had unraveled, prompting Ehrlich to bypass Hollinger and take his case directly to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Miller said afterward that the bill should come to the Senate floor.

"Septics should be part of a comprehensive solution to deaing with the bay," Miller said.

However, Ehrlich said, "We obviously believe septics is a separate issue, and should be dealt with independent of this bill."

"We believe an equivalent charge is inappropriate given that septic is only 4 percent of the problem" of nutrient pollution in the bay, he said.

Hollinger said the governor's staff told her Ehrlich could accept the approach to septics taken in the House bill, which passed by a wide margin. The House decided to tax septics indirectly, by raising the rate paid by companies that pump out septic tanks when they bring waste to sewage treatment plants.

Hollinger rejected that approach, saying it is flawed on several counts. Among other things, she said, it creates a disincentive to pumping out and lets pumpers avoid the charge by taking waste to out-of-state sewage plants.

Environmentalists expressed dismay at the latest obstacle the bill has encountered.

Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the Senate's approach to septics is "far more equitable."

If the Senate passes Hollinger's version of the bill, the issue would go to a conference committee, where she would try to reach an agreement with her House counterpart, Del. Maggie L. McIntosh.

Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.

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Read the text of proposed legislation, including the Senate slots bill, SB 197; the budget bill, SB 125; the living-wage bill, SB 621; the flush tax, HB 292.

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