There has been much hue and cry in recent days about the General Assembly approving a "rain tax" this year that is punitive, anti-commerce and unnecessary. What's truly remarkable about these protestations is how none of the underlying claims are true.
Rather, this may be a lesson in the perils of approving a policy at the state level but leaving the business of carrying it out to local government. It's far easier for county elected leaders to point a finger at Annapolis than to actually educate themselves on an issue — let alone try to explain why a tax is so clearly in their constituents' self-interest.
So here's what is actually happening. In 2012, the legislature approved a new program to reduce the fastest-growing source of water pollution in this state: stormwater runoff. What may fall as ordinary rain quickly picks up such contaminants as lawn and garden fertilizers, pet waste, septic tank overflow, chemicals like motor oil, litter and chemicals produced by cars and industry.
Hard, impervious surfaces make this problem much worse. Instead of naturally filtering into the ground, the pollution is sped along to vulnerable streams and rivers and eventually, at least for most of the state, the Chesapeake Bay.
These hard surfaces, such as roads and buildings, have rapidly increased over the last two decades. Between 1990 and 2007, the amount grew by an estimated 34 percent in the bay watershed even as population grew by only 18 percent. Lawmakers finally recognized that something needed to be done — particularly if the state and local governments are to meet the Chesapeake Bay "pollution diet" goals enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The stormwater law passed in Annapolis last year left much of the specifics of how to reduce this pollution to local government, requiring Baltimore and the 23 counties to set a fee to pay for such things as storm drains, collection ponds, stream restorations or other improvements that control and slow the flow of runoff. Some county officials are upset by this and lobbied the legislature to postpone the program's implementation — an effort that died in the waning days of the recent session.
Meanwhile, counties are, one by one, approving their fees. This week, the governing councils of Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties approved fees on homeowners and businesses — generally based on the amount of impervious surface. For most, the fee is modest. In Baltimore County, for instance, the owner of a single-family home will pay $39 annually.
To call this a "rain tax" is to try to make it sound like some absurd leftist plot to tax a natural process; to suggest, as one official did, that it's a "tax on civilization" is to imply that the damage done by stormwater runoff either doesn't exist or isn't especially serious. That's truly ridiculous. This isn't merely about protecting the bay (although that alone would justify the program) but also about protecting the health of freshwater drinking supplies and preventing local flooding, two issues that should strike most Marylanders pretty close to home.
We could ask each individual to create a stormwater collection system on his or her property, but that would be absurd and impossibly burdensome. Like most matters of public works, this is one area where government must help get the job done. And when we expect our government to take on a new task, we have to provide the means to pay for it.
Maybe conservative commentators of the Fox News variety would prefer Maryland just embraced algae-clogged streams, fish kills, contaminated groundwater and all the other effects of "paving the bay." But we think it's far more sensible to expect polluters to clean up after themselves — and in this case, that means all of us with a roof over our heads or blacktop under our feet.
We aren't taxing rain, we're taxing the pollution all of us generate, however unintentionally. The rain is just the vehicle by which that pollution is swept away. Businesses with big parking lots may find themselves paying more than they'd like, but, of course, they're also polluting more than everyone else would like. If tomorrow, those same businesses dumped waste in the local creek, would we ignore that damage, too? Stormwater runoff is just as harmful — the only difference is that it has been overlooked for too long.
Nobody likes paying more in taxes, but at least this is a straight-up user fee — financing a dedicated fund that goes directly to cleaning up a problem. People who don't think twice about water once it flows into a storm sewer are the ones living in a fantasy land. That critics can't even accurately describe when the tax was passed should tell you all you need to know about how carefully they've considered the issue.