Whether to keep or repeal Maryland’s so-called “rain tax” is at the center of a critical debate in the General Assembly session that opened yesterday.
The term is a catchy -- but factually incorrect -- slogan used by opponents of pollution control fees, many of them deniers of a real and growing problem. The intent of the rhetoric is to confuse discussion of suburban and urban runoff pollution, the only major source of pollution that is growing in the Chesapeake Bay.
The pollution control fees required by a 2012 state law are not, in fact, taxes on rain. They are fees on parking lots, roofs, driveways, and other hardened surfaces in developed areas. The amounts are set by local governments, which often base them on how many square feet of pavement and roofing a property has, or on a standard rate per property (not on how much rain falls in a given year). When water flushes across these surfaces, it picks up oil, trash, pesticides, pet waste, toxic metals and other pollutants. The noxious, fast-moving mixture erodes stream banks, and can kill fish, flood homes, and pose health risks to people who swim or wade. Polluted runoff seriously damages the water quality of the Bay and its tributaries.
Local governments are responsible for reducing this pollution by building ponds, modified ditches, and roadside gardens with plants that act as filters. These projects create local jobs for construction workers and engineers. But the projects cost money for local governments, which is why fees are needed.
To date, at least five bills have been introduced to delay, weaken, or create exemptions for Maryland’s 2012 stormwater law, which requires the state’s nine largest counties and Baltimore to impose the pollution control fees.
State Del. Kathy Szeliga, the House Minority Whip who represents parts of Baltimore and Harford Counties, argues the law should be overturned.
“When this tax –- and we call it the ‘rain tax’ –- was passed two years ago, 10 of the counties were picked on, and the remainder were not charged any tax,” Szeliga said. “And, so what does that look like today? I’ll tell you what it looks like. A car dealership in Howard County literally has a forty thousand dollar a year rain tax bill, and is competing against car dealers in other counties that don’t have a rain tax bill.”
To clarify a factual issue here: At Howard County’s rate of $15 per 500 square feet for businesses, it would take a car dealership with 23 football fields of blacktop and roofs to have an annual fee the size Del. Szeliga describes. An average fee is more like about $8,000 a year for a car dealership in Howard County, according to the Maryland Automobile Dealers Association.