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Maryland Politics
Posted at 06:34 PM ET, 03/20/2012

Md. House panel approves doubling “flush tax” as environmental bills move through legislature

This post has been updated.

A handful of high-profile environmental bills, including Gov. Martin O’Malley’s (D) proposals to increase the “flush tax” and restrict septic systems, are reaching critical junctures in their journey through the Maryland legislature.

Tuesday, the House Environmental Matters Committee voted to approve a bill that would double the annual cost of nearly every resident’s flush tax, which is used to restore the Chesapeake Bay, to $60 from $30.

The bill that emerged from the committee and now heads to the full House differs markedly from O’Malley’s original proposal for a fee based on water consumption, which his administration concluded was unworkable.

The plan that won approval is also more modest than a revised proposal the administration had been discussing with lawmakers in recent weeks, which would have increased the flush tax to $75 from $30 annually.

In an interview, Robert M. Summers, secretary of the Department of the Environment, said lawmakers opted for an increase of $30 rather than $45 partly because of another bill that won approval Tuesday from the Environmental Matters Committee.

That bill would require certain local jurisdictions to collect a stormwater utility fee to fund street retrofitting and other projects, helping them meet federal mandates to reduce pollution runoff to the bay. The bill does not stipulate any mandatory minimum fee.

Local governments are able to impose such a fee without a mandate, said Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore), the committee chair. She said Montgomery County already does so.

“The truth of the matter is, the local jurisdictions have been dragging their feet on doing this,” McIntosh said.

Also receiving attention Tuesday was O’Malley’s revamped proposal to limit growth on septic systems, which was discussed in the Senate days after receiving committee approval on a 7-4 vote.

O’Malley has argued the bill’s restrictions would curb development sprawl and reduce nitrogen pollution to the Chesapeake Bay.

Pitching the bill to colleagues Tuesday, Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) tailored his argument to the tax-weary Senate by claiming the plan would “keep down taxes.”

Pinsky said that unless the state directs growth to areas with existing sewage infrastructure, increasing rural sprawl will create a need for new roads and schools. “Anytime you start to invest in infrastructure, as you know so well, it costs money,” he said.

This session marks O’Malley’s second attempt to curb sprawl by restricting septic systems. A bill with more stringent restrictions stalled in the legislature last year.

Also on Tuesday, environmentalists won a victory in the House, where a bill passed that would impose a fee on natural gas companies to fund Maryland’s study of the controversial drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

If the bill passes the Senate, companies that hold drilling leases in Western Maryland will have to pay the state $15 per leased acre towards the study, which currently has no funding source.

Last June, O’Malley ordered that a three-year study be conducted before any wells could be drilled.

In Pennsylvania and other states that allow shale gas drilling, some have blamed fracking for contaminated water supplies and other environmental damages.

Those who support shale gas production in Maryland argue that the bill, introduced by Del. Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery), will deter energy companies from doing business in Maryland.

Mizeur, however, said that would not be a huge loss. “If the industry decides that they don’t want to come in to Maryland because they don’t get to ride roughshod over us the way they have in every other state, so be it,” she said.

Mizeur is on a commission that O’Malley created to advise the state over the course of its study of shale gas drilling.

By Greg Masters  |  06:34 PM ET, 03/20/2012

 
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