Rain tax: Noble goal, unfair execution.

Kim Coble of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation laments that Maryland county officials are considering rolling back their stormwater remediation fees. (“‘Rain tax¿ is rolling back,” Jan. 26.) In 2012 the Maryland General Assembly passed HB 987 requiring nine Maryland counties and Baltimore City to enact a stormwater remediation fee, the so-called “rain tax.” Fourteen counties are exempt from the state mandate.

In lauding the benefits of the rain tax, Ms. Coble fails to recognize that the fundamental flaw in the rain tax lies not in its goals but in its concept. The wildly uneven manner in which the rain tax has been implemented by local jurisdictions since 2012 is a direct consequence of the inequitable concept upon which the tax is based. The inequity strikes a particular nerve in Maryland, not entirely dissimilar to the nerve struck by the British import tax that resulted in the burning of the Peggy Stewart during the Annapolis Tea Party in 1774.

There is a long and reasonably successful history of Marylanders sharing more or less equally in the solutions to problems that are deemed to be of importance to the entire state. The rain tax departed from this principle and is based on the concept that only some citizens of the state should bear the burden of funding the infrastructure needed to better protect the Chesapeake Bay from stormwater runoff.

By way of contrast, the taxpayers of my county, Anne Arundel County, contribute to the subsidies paid by the State of Maryland to operate subways in Baltimore and Washington, although ridership studies indicate that very few residents of Anne Arundel County benefit directly from those systems of mass transit. Tax money leaves the pockets of Anne Arundel County citizens and goes to support public education in Baltimore City because the well being of the state’s major urban center is deemed a matter of statewide concern. Apparently, the health of the Chesapeake Bay is not.

Although property owners in Ocean City are not required to help pay for stormwater treatment in Anne Arundel County, property owners in Anne Arundel County are required to help pay for beach restoration in Ocean City. Also, the Chesapeake Bay apparently is important enough to impose a unique tax on the residents of its Western Shore but not important enough to impose the tax on the residents of its Eastern Shore. In this light, why is it so hard to understand the resentment of the rain tax as conceived by the General Assembly?

Extending the rain tax to the other fourteen counties of the state would not have a significant impact on the financial burden imposed on Baltimore City and the nine counties to which it now applies, but that misses the point. Unfairness causes anger, and once emotion becomes involved numbers become secondary; no one likes being taken advantage of. Finally, if the General Assembly does conclude that the entire state should participate in protecting the bay, then why not take the next step and make State revenues available?

The goals of the rain tax and the needs that it serves are not at issue. The flaws lie in its concept and design. It is time to stop blaming county citizens and their officials for being angry about the inequities of the rain tax, and time to start fixing them.

[Published as a Letter to the Editor by The Baltimore Sun on January 29, 2015.  I did not post the letter until May 31, 2016; the date of posting listed above was backdated to place the letter on the blog in the order it was written.]

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