Laslo Boyd: Raining on Larry Hogan's Parade

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By: Laslo Boyd

Last Friday, the House Committee on Environment and Transportation voted down a bill introduced at the request of the Hogan Administration that would have repealed the State’s stormwater remediation fee enacted in 2012.   The Senate companion bill me the same fate this Tuesday in the Senate Committee on Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs.  If the topic doesn’t ring a bell with you, perhaps you are more familiar with the phrase “rain tax.”

In one of the most effective examples of political rebranding, Republicans have used that label to attack a law intended to reduce a significant source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.    To make matters worse, much of the media has adopted the practice of referring to the fee as the “rain tax”.   Whether out of laziness or an inability to resist a catchy phrase, the result is publicizing the argument of one side in a political debate.

The origins of the issue come out of the Clean Water Act and a federal requirement that states take active measures to reduce runoff that pollutes rivers, streams, and, in the case of Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay.    The General Assembly had extensive discussions over a two-year period, included local government officials in the deliberations, and ended up passing a law essential to improving the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

In its final form, the law applied to the 10 largest jurisdictions in the State, the ones with the largest amount of impervious surface, contributing the most to water pollution in Maryland.  Those counties were given considerable latitude in the size of the fee that would be charged to create a remediation fund as well as the specific steps that each would take to reduce runoff.  It was, in the end, a highly decentralized approach.

Larry Hogan made the “rain tax” one of the centerpieces of his campaign for governor last year.  Republicans unleashed a steady barrage of attacks on the “rain tax” and then cited public opposition to it as if their well-orchestrated campaign was not the primary cause of the negative public views. 

Despite labeling themselves conservatives, Republicans have shown little or no interest in conserving natural resources or taking responsibility for stewardship of the planet.   One segment denies the existence of climate change and environmental damage.  A second acknowledges it, but rejects the idea that any of the problems are man-made.  A third group seems willing to admit there are real environmental problems, but is unwilling to pay to have them remedied.

That third group in the context of today’s Republicans constitutes what might be considered the party’s moderates.  Larry Hogan seems to fall into that category.  He has asserted that he will be a champion of the environment but so far his actions leave most environmental groups wondering whether there will be any substance to that claim. 

Allan Kittlemann, another Republican who won office last November as self-professed moderate, testified in favor of Hogan’s repeal bill and is said to be considering how to change Howard County’s approach to the stormwater remediation requirement. 

Both Hogan and Kittlemann have railed so loudly and consistently against the “rain tax” that any compromise on their parts would probably be seen by many of their supporters as a betrayal of basic principles.  Neither however has given any indication of specific steps that they would take to help protect the Chesapeake Bay or the environment.  Hogan’s Administration Bill called for a repeal of the earlier law without any indication of how the requirements of the Clean Water Act would be satisfied after repeal.

House Speaker Mike Busch made it clear from the start that he was not sympathetic to Hogan’s repeal effort.  The straight party vote in the committee last week was a clear and decisive reaffirmation of that position.

Curiously, the criticism of the remediation fee has come for the most part not from jurisdictions in which it is in effect.  Those counties have plans in place to mitigate the impact of runoff from the increasingly paved contours of their jurisdictions.  

Rather, in examining this issue, I heard numerous examples of complaints about the tax coming from residents of counties that were not included in the law.  Those stories are testimony to the effectiveness of the Republican campaign against the tax as well as to a general and growing aversion to taxation.

Defeat of the Hogan Administration repeal bill is not necessarily the end of the story however.   There is another bill on the same topic sponsored by Senate President Mike Miller that may fare better.

Miller’s bill is apparently intended to show that Democrats are sensitive to the anti-tax message that some see as the lesson of the 2014 Gubernatorial Election.  Its substance does little more than reaffirm the federal requirements that were largely ignored before the 2012 legislation.  It does call for accountability measures to confirm that counties are in fact taking actions even if the tax itself is repealed.   The problem with this bill is that it would undercut the efforts that are currently in place in those 10 counties.

Given the ability of President Miller to get what he wants in the Senate, if he pushes for passage of his bill, it will almost certainly be approved in that chamber.   Unless it is significantly modified however, its prospects in the House are probably not much better than were those of the Hogan bill that was rejected last week.

What’s happens next if the General Assembly takes no action on this issue?  On the political side, Republicans will continue to have the “rain tax” to kick around.  Whether they are able to show any commitment to the Chesapeake Bay and the environment remains to be seen.

Democrats will still be on the defensive unless they can develop their own branding strategy that counters the appeal of the “rain tax” label.  All they will be left with is the knowledge that they are trying to save the Chesapeake Bay.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.