Before this year the average Marylander probably knew little about storm water. Environmentalists used the word. But then, environmentalists do weird things, like pay higher prices for food grown locally.
All that changed April 12. Comedian and Fox News commentator Steven Crowder used the phrase “rain tax” in a Fox Business News segment with anchor Neil Cavuto. They ridiculed Maryland (and its Democratic governor) and specifically utility fees dedicated to reducing polluted runoff.
You have to give it to Fox. They know how to make people sit up and get angry. Critics of the fees in Maryland started using the term “rain tax.” Reporters picked it up in their stories. Suddenly it was in headlines across the state (first in quotes, then without), most recently in Robert O’Brien’s blog in Baltimore Fishbowl, “Nobody Should Like This New Rain Tax, Here’s Why.”
The whole thing reminded me of when my social studies teacher called on a funny kid in class during a lesson on the Louisiana Purchase. His response got us all laughing. Suddenly we were all paying attention. But we didn’t learn much more about the Louisiana Purchase.
In the same way, the “rain tax” hype has made Marylanders generally aware of storm water, but much of the coverage of the topic doesn’t really teach us enough about the problem. While people are still paying attention let me slip in a few facts:
- This type of pollution is the only major source of water pollution increasing in Maryland.
- Rain washes dog waste, litter, fertilizer, and other contaminants straight into local creeks, rivers, the Inner Harbor and the Bay. This polluted soup isn’t treated in most places.
- In many areas of the state polluted runoff is responsible for a major portion of pollution in local rivers and streams.
- The Maryland Department of the Environment cautions the public not to swim in ANY waterways of the state for 48 hours after a significant storm because stormwater carries harmful bacteria into those waters.
- If we do this work, not only will our kids be able to safely swim in the water, but we’ll create 178,000 full-time private sector jobs in the region, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
- The state legislature last year budgeted tens of millions of dollars to help local governments reduce this problem, but also decided Baltimore City and the state’s most populated counties should pony up, too, because that’s where the problem is worse. The localities were asked to raise a fee dedicated only to upgrading their local stormwater systems.
- Local governments asked that they be given flexibility to decide the size of the fee, and the way it was collected. So it was no surprise this year when different counties passed different fees, one county as low as one cent per household per year.
And here’s one last thing missing from most lampoons of the “rain tax:” an alternative solution. Should we continue to ignore this problem? Should we siphon off money from other government services to upgrade our storm water systems?
I’m willing to pay a little more for a valuable government service, just as I’m willing to pay more for meat from a steer grown here in Maryland. I see value in that investment. But some people just want the least expensive product.
By setting its own storm water fee, whether one cent or something higher, each local government made a similar decision.
Tom Zolper is the Maryland Communications Coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
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