Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Rain Taxes & The Dangerous Precipitation

The hot button topic amongst politicos and wonks this past month has been the "Tax on Impervious Surfaces" also known as the "Rain Tax", which was passed last year, but began implementation this year.  (Dems certainly lost the war of words on that one.)

Stated in its simplest terms - the "Rain Tax" assesses a tax on all property owners commensurate with the surface area of their property that does not absorb rain water.  Other than the "rain tax", this tax could also have been called the "Parking lot, Driveway, and Sidewalk Tax", but PDST sounds like a disease...I guess Dems made it out ok with "Rain Tax".

In April 2012, prompted by new Clean Water Targets for the Chesapeake Bay issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, the General Assembly passed a storm-water pollution fee applicable to nine counties (including Howard) to raise revenue to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.  Similar to other environmental laws, state legislators kindly delegated it to the Counties to determine how the tax would be assessed.  The Senate passed an amendment that would have exempted religious institutions and nonprofits, but this Amendment died in the House.

Here in Howard County, our County Council implemented the Impervious Surface tax by a 4-1 vote, with Greg Fox on the other end of the Democrat majority.  This tax will assess $15 for every 500 square feet of impervious surface with average homeowners expected to pay approximately $105 a year.  According to the piece by Blair Ames, the Ulman Administration had originally proposed phasing the tax in at $7.80 in the first year and $20 thereafter, but Council member Calvin Ball smartly determined that this would create two years of jarring tax pain as opposed to a single introduction.  And let's be honest with ourselves, we don't know what taxes will be passed next year, so we shouldn't start using up 2014 goodwill in 2013.

Anne Arundel County Executive Laura Neuman made a splash this past week by vetoing her County's version of the rain tax after the Republican County Council passed a tax that was broken down by housing structure ("$85 for most single-family homes, $34 for townhouses and condominiums and $170 for rural houses").  Considering Anne Arundel County will eventually have to pay these storm-water fees, and the simple fact that the Bay may be the single largest driver of the Anne Arundel economy, this veto has been characterized by The Sun and others as "reckless" and a "failure in leadership".

Meanwhile, back in Howard County, retiring State Senator Jim Robey has indicated that the State legislature will likely change the "rain tax" during its 2014 session.  This may be, in great part, due to the reticence towards being beaten over the head with such a semantically pleasant term like "rain tax" during the 2014 Election Cycle.

But here's the issue - we are killing the Chesapeake Bay.  In no uncertain terms, the dead zones in the Bay are getting worse, most of your crabs are coming from New Jersey, and oysters (being the garbage eaters of the Bay) may end up being bad for your health in the very near future.  One of the greatest sources of that pollution is not oil spills or the Big Gulp cup you see floating in the Inner Harbor, but rather the oils and other chemicals that ooze from your car, collect within the cement pavement of the parking lot outside your office, extrude into a puddle when it rains, stream into the tributaries of the Patapsco River, and join the Bay.  Pervious surfaces are preferred, as this allows dangerous pollutants to enter the ground where (through the magic of science) they are almost remediated to the point of no longer being a danger or, at worst, are held captive by the poisoned soil.

So that's the situation and we need to talk about this issue like adults.  "Rain Tax" is a throwaway line.  No one likes being taxed.  It is very possible that a new tax is not necessary and, so long as this is a priority, funding can be redirected from failing programs.  BUT, above all things, we need to recognize this as a clear and present danger.  What kind of shame will we all feel if the Chesapeake Bay's ecosystem is wiped out over the next few decades?  You and I will both be around to see it.  How will we explain ourselves to our children and grandchildren?  That is the top priority.  The next step is finding a responsible means of addressing the problem and, respectfully, last minute bills pushing the responsibility onto a selected group of municipalities is just not responsible.  This is a State-wide problem that merits a State-wide solution of dedicated "lock-box" revenue with additional provisions to encourage pervious paving materials in future construction.  We'll see if the legislature goes in that direction next year, or merely wipes out the first attempt.

That's all for today.  Have a great Tuesday doing what you love!