March 20, 2015

Washington Post: Maryland Senate unanimously approves easing ‘rain tax’ terms

By Jenna Johnson

The Maryland Senate voted unanimously Friday to no longer require that the state’s largest jurisdictions charge a storm water remediation fee, which Republicans dubbed the “rain tax” on the campaign trail last year.

The legislation now moves to the House of Delegates, where there has been stronger opposition to changing the fee because Democratic leaders say they do not want to do anything that could impede the reduction of pollution reaching the Chesapeake Bay.

One of the loudest critics of the fee has been Gov. Larry Hogan (R), whose vow to kill it became his campaign rallying cry. Hogan introduced his own legislation to repeal the mandate that the state’s nine most-populous counties and Baltimore City charge a fee — while acknowledging that he did not have the power to actually eliminate this jurisdiction-level tax. But the governor’sbill died in both chambers.

Just like Hogan’s bill, the version introduced by Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) version gets rid of the requirement that major jurisdictions charge a fee to at least partially fund anti-pollution efforts that are mandated by the federal government. But Miller’s measure requires these counties to document how much their anti-pollution programs will cost and where they will find that money.

For counties that decide to continue charging this fee — as many plan to do — Miller’s bill would exempt some veterans organizations from having to pay. A similar exemption already exists for volunteer fire departments.

The bill also provides guidance on how local governments should explain the fee to taxpayers. Until now, some counties have labeled the fee as state-mandated — which some Democrats say helped fuel anger over it. Under Miller’s legislation, bill statements sent to taxpayers will read: “This is a local government fee established in response to federal storm water management requirements. The federal requirements are designed to prevent local sources of pollution from reaching local waterways.”

It was no surprise that Miller’s bill passed the Senate on Friday, as 34 of the chamber’s 47 members are listed as sponsors — and many senators are hesitant to challenge the powerful president. There was limited discussion as the bill progressed this week.

But once it was time for a final vote Friday morning, Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel) rose on the floor to support the legislation — and then complain that the original 2012 law was passed too hastily, that it is unfair that some counties charge a fee while others do not and that the administration of former governor Martin O’Malley (D) used environmental funds to plug holes in the general budget.

“While I’m supporting this bill, I’m encouraging that we address the other issues as well,” Simonaire said.

A frustrated Senate Majority Leader Catherine E. Pugh (D-Baltimore) threw up her hands at this long speech: “I was a little confused, because I didn’t know if he was for or against the bill.”

Miller allowed Simonaire to continue, but also reminded him that the bill could still die. “We’re not sure this is going to pass the House,” he said. “We’ve just got to get it over to the House.”

Miller tried to call a vote, but first Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) wanted to say something. Pinsky pointed out that even Hogan’s legislation refers to a “stormwater remediation fee” and not a “rain tax.”

“All of a sudden, with a new year and their own legislation, they have backtracked on using that so-called phrase,” said Pinsky, who is vice chairman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. “I think politics are behind this, rightly or wrongly. . . . To use this as political football, I think, was wrong in the first place and it continues to be wrong.”

As Simonaire tried to defend himself, Miller jumped in with a unifying cry of: “One Maryland! One Maryland!” He then ordered up a vote, which was 46 to zero.

After the vote, Simonaire said he had not been playing “political football” and had had a “valid point that had nothing to do with politics.”

Hogan declared the bill’s passage “a tremendous victory for the taxpayers of Maryland” in a statement Friday afternoon. He has previously said that he doesn’t care that lawmakers supported Miller’s bill instead of his own, as long as the fee is reformed.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said his chamber is “certainly going to take a close look at it.”

And after the Senate adjourned, Miller had a more optimistic take on his bill’s chances in the House. “The bill is obviously supported by the governor very vigorously,” Miller said. “I would hope the House could deal with it appropriately.”

Friday was a busy day in Annapolis, as lawmakers prepared for Monday’s “crossover day,” a deadline for most bills to pass in one chamber so they can be fully considered in the other chamber before the session ends April 13.

Both chambers approved bills that decriminalize the possession of marijuana paraphernalia such as bongs and pipes. Last year, Maryland decriminalized the possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana — but it is still a crime to have paraphernalia used to consume the drug. Senators voted 33 to 12 to make possession of this paraphernalia a civil offense with a fine, while the House voted 90 to 48.

Late Friday, the House advanced a bill that would get rid of mandatory-minimum sentences for some drug-related offenses. Del. Jay Walker (D-Prince George’s), concerned that the original proposal was too lenient, offered an amendment for the repeal to apply only to second offenders convicted of some drug distribution offenses. The original bill would have repealed mandatory-minimum sentences for third and fourth offenders as well.

Lawmakers in the House also advanced a bill that would halt the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment, a computer-based test that was administered last fall. Teachers raised concerns about the amount of time taken away from instruction and whether the tests yield useful information.

The Senate voted unanimously to approve legislation that would establish a consortium to study the growing number of heroin overdose deaths in the state and would allow for easier and wider distribution of Naloxone, a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose.

The Senate also voted unanimously Friday to approve the latest batch of executive nominations from Hogan, including the appointments of the secretaries of disabilities, information technology and natural resources, plus the new Maryland State Police superintendent.

Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

Originally posted on The Washington Post, available here.