A "sleeper" bill that would require Baltimore city and the state's nine largest counties to levy fees on property owners to pay for controlling storm-water pollution won preliminary Senate approval this evening, though whether it will pass in the General Assembly's waning hours remains to be seen.
The measure, HB987, which has failed to pass in prior years, gained traction late in the 90-day legislative session after the O'Malley administration and lawmakers agreed to scale back a proposed increase in the so-called "flush fee"to help pay for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. That bill, which gained final approval today, would double the $2.50 monthly fee paid by all utility customers and septic tank owners. The money raised would help finish upgrading the state's largest sewage treatment plants, while also funneling aid to farmers to control runoff from their fields.
The storm-water fee bill would require Maryland's largest localities to raise funds to retrofit storm drains, plant trees and take other steps to reduce polluted runoff from streets, parking lots and buildings - a massive chore estimated by some officials to cost more than $6 billion over the next 13 years. The bill had languished for a time amid jockeying over the possibility that the flush fee would be more than doubled, with the extra revenues directed toward helping pay for runoff projects.
Sen.E.J. Pipkin, R-Eastern Shore, questioned the bill, calling it a "$6 billion tax" on Marylanders that hadn't been adequately analyzed.
But Sen.Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George's, said it was needed to force local officials to do what they've been reluctant to do - raise funds locally to pay for runoff from their communities that is fouling the bay. Pinsky said the bill leave it up to each locality to decide how big a fee to levy, but requires them all to impose one by July 2013.
The amount charged each property owner would be based on how much land is covered by pavement and buildings, though allowances would be made for those landowners who've already taken steps to control their runoff.
Besides Baltimore city, whose officials supported the bill, jurisdictions that would be required to levy a storm-water fee are Anne Arundel, Baltimore County, Carroll, Charles, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's. Montgomery would be largely exempt, however, as it has already adopted a local runoff fee - the only major local government to do so.
The measure still needs final Senate approval tonight, and at least one senator indicated he wanted to amend it. Changes made in the Senate would then have to be approved by the House in the session's waning hours for the measure to make it to the governor's desk.