Senate on verge of sewer fee OK

Final vote on bill that includes septic systems is set for today

General Assembly

April 08, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Senate showed strong support yesterday for a broadened version of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposal to impose a $2.50 per month charge on Marylanders' water and sewer bills - decisively rejecting an attempt to relieve septic system owners of the same burden.

A final vote on the initiative to clean up the Chesapeake Bay is expected today, but a key test vote showed that Senate Democrats will likely muster enough support to pass the bill by a large enough margin to override a veto. The bill would then go to a conference committee, where lawmakers would try to resolve significant differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.

The Ehrlich administration opposes changes made by a Senate committee chaired by Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat. The governor said yesterday that he hopes to persuade lawmakers to alter the bill in the conference.

"We believe septics are a de minimis part of the problem, and they should be a de minimis part of the solution," Ehrlich said.

The governor has identified the sewer charge bill, originally conceived of as a way to pay for upgrading treatment plants alone, as his No. 1 environmental initiative. But to some extent, the debate over the bill has spiraled out of the administration's control.

Democrats from all wings of the party rallied behind Hollinger on a 33-13 vote, mostly along party lines, to reject an amendment by Frederick County Sen. David R. Brinkley to exempt septic systems from the bill. Twenty-nine votes are needed to override a veto.

Exempt argument

The House voted 134-5 on March 19, with more than enough Democrats to override, for a version of the bill that also includes a charge on septic systems. That puts the power to craft a compromise largely in the hands of Hollinger and Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee.

Ehrlich and Republican senators have been arguing that septic systems, which tend to be found in rural areas and outer suburbs, should be exempt from the charge because they contribute only 4 percent of the bay's total nitrogen pollution.

But William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said while that might be the case baywide, septic systems represent about 25 percent of the pollution from human sewage. He added that in certain tributaries, septic systems are the source of an even larger percentage of the total pollution.

"Septic systems do not do a good job of removing nitrogen," he said.

Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus said he doesn't oppose the concept of a fee on septics but believes the question of what and how to charge their owners should be left to further study. The Eastern Shore Republican said many owners of septics believe they've paid enough for their systems.

Division of votes

On the key vote, two Republicans - Sens. Sandra B. Schrader of Howard County and John J. Hafer of Western Maryland - joined 31 Democrats in rejecting the amendment. Anne Arundel County Democratic Sen. Philip C. Jimeno joined 12 Republicans in supporting it.

McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, predicted the governor will support whatever compromise comes out of the conference. She also expressed confidence the House and Senate can bridge their differences before the legislative session ends Monday night.

"We'll work it out," she said.

Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.

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