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Sen. Jim Brochin, D-Baltimore County (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

Citing will of voters, Democratic senator urges repeal of ‘rain tax’

Brochin says counties should be able to foot the bill

One Baltimore County state senator is calling for the repeal of Maryland’s two-year old stormwater management fee and drawing the ire of an environmental group who endorsed him.

Sen. Jim Brochin, D-Baltimore County, told a group of students at Goucher College that the fee, commonly called “the rain tax” by opponents, was a key issue in last week’s election and that he would seek to repeal it.

Brochin told students that Democrats in Annapolis “need to stand together to repeal it and move on.”

The senator told students that Democrats miscalculated public hostility to the tax and were punished at the ballot box in a year where taxes and the economy were foremost in the minds of voters. Republican Gov.-elect Larry Hogan campaigned to dump the fee in his successful race against Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown.

“If you do something that onerous and out of bounds you’re going to get what you deserve,” Brochin said.

F ollowing the class, Brochin told a reporter that the results of the 2014 election crystallized the desires of voters.

“The people have spoken,” Brochin said. “It would be a major mistake not to respect the will of the voters.”

Karla Raettig, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said she was disappointed with Brochin’s call for repeal. Brochin received the endorsement of the group this year in part because of his position on the fee.

“We would not have endorsed anybody who told us they supported the repeal of the stormwater management fee,” Raettig said.

A copy of Brochin’s proposed legislation was not available but the senator said it would include “a full repeal” at the same time it would require counties to continue to fulfill the requirements of a federal mandate to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

“We do have to cut the carbon load and we do have to cut the phosphorous load and we do have to clean up the bay and we should comply with the federal consent decree,” Brochin said, adding that the current law is bad public policy.

Brochin said he believes that local government can pay the cost of reducing pollutants within their existing budgets, and he pointed to Carroll County, which enacted its own efforts to reduce pollution without additional fees, as well as Baltimore County and its budget surplus.

“They have $200 million,” Brochin said.

The controversial fee became a political target in the 2014 election. Hogan ran against it as part of his campaign against 40 tax increases imposed under Gov. Martin O’Malley and Brown.

Hogan at one point called the fee “the most hated tax” in the state.

The law enacted in 2012 requires 10 of the state’s most populous jurisdictions to comply with a federal mandate to reduce the amounts of phosphorous, nitrogen, sediment and other pollution from the Chesapeake Bay. Many of those jurisdictions added an additional charge to local property taxes based on the amount of impervious surface that is used to pay for projects to mitigate those pollutants.

The fees charged vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. For instance, Baltimore County charges $39 to the owner of a single-family home each year and $21 to the owner of a duplex.

State environmental officials estimate that the costs just for the 10 jurisdictions subject to the stormwater fee law could reach more than $4 billion over the next five years, according to the Center for Watershed Protection.

Hogan and other Republicans characterized the effort as a rain tax — an image environmentalists see as disingenuous even if it makes for a good sound bite. In Baltimore County, Republicans targeted Del. John A. Olszewski Jr., D-Baltimore County, over his vote on the fee. The county Republican Central Committee paid for billboards in the district calling Olszewski out on his vote and later sent mailings to voters highlighting his position.

Olszewski, who was considered the odds-on favorite to succeed retiring Sen. Norman Stone, lost to John Salling, an upstart Republican challenger.

“If you’re not honest and characterize it as something silly, it’s not going to be popular with the public,” Raettig said. “We understand that (rain tax) got a lot of play during the campaign but it isn’t the reality of what it is. It will never be a reality that it’s a tax on rain.”

Brochin would not be the first to attempt to repeal the fee.

Last year a number of Democrats and Republicans sponsored bills that would have capped, repealed or set limits on the fee. All of those bills died in committee.

Any attempt to repeal the tax could run into the same difficult sledding in the House and Senate as the year before though Brochin believes there is support in the Senate to pass such legislation.

Raettig said environmental groups worked hard to derail repeal attempts last year and believe a public campaign to show the public good done by the fee will make the difference.

“We have a lot of work to do to show what it means on the ground,” Raettig said.