Thursday, May 9, 2013

How to Fix the Rain Tax

Just as the "rain tax" (Stormwater Management Fee) was rounding into the ken of most Marylanders, we incurred a week of rain.  It is hard not to think of a misguided citizen posting a tarp over their back patio to save money on taxes or collecting all of their run-off in a bucket to get a refund.  The war of semantics was lost long ago, but it seems the Republicans did not, or could not, fill the breach with a substantive alternative.  We need responsible management of the Chesapeake Watershed and, in my anecdotal experience, there is a great deal of public support in doing so.  This was the wrong way to do it and was otherwise just a lazy piece of law.

Legislators are accustomed to people telling them they did something wrong.  What they would really like is those same people telling them better ideas to fix it?

Exempt Non-profits and Religious Institutions - this was part of the Senate bill back in 2012 when the fee was passed, but did not make it into the final draft.  Our government needs to be very careful when it pushes substantial burdens onto the nonprofit sector, particularly when those institutions provide a public service.  While there are certainly exceptions to every rule, nonprofits may have a much more difficult time generating new revenue and may not be able to push costs onto end users the same way a for-profit company may.  Furthermore, the margin for these organizations may be miniscule and cost increases of only a few thousand may be enough to cause an existential threat.

Create Uniformity - There is some merit to delegating the application of a tax to local authorities, but it does not appear that the "rain tax" is one of them.  Our County system is not a "laboratory for democracy" as much as it resembles local branches of a larger entity (i.e., State Government).  In this circumstance, the branches were given substantial leeway to set policy, or to refuse the mandate altogether, something that the State of Maryland was not empowered to do.  This created confusion about who was in charge and whether this "rain tax" even had to be passed in the first place.  In the next draft, legislators would be smart to create a set of three alternatives that the counties may choose from, and leave local discretion to choose amongst the three. 

Don't tax the things you like - One of the best features of the current rain tax is that it encourages stormwater management projects, such as rain gardens and the use of pervious materials.  We need to think broader than this.  Sidewalks, bike paths, and mass transit should be exempted from the bill or at least given a grace period within which pervious alternatives can be encouraged and implemented.  Otherwise, the State will place a disincentive on  connectivity projects that may otherwise keep people out of single-occupancy-automobiles and on their bikes/feet.

Raise taxes on the things you don't like - This isn't just about impervious surfaces.  It is also about the chemicals that trickle onto our parking lots and cause serious damage downstream.  Target those products that create the problem and create a tiered system of taxation that discourages their use.  OR, a la Sunstein, require packaging that explains "This material kills weeds...and everything you know and love."

Make it a "Parking Lot Tax" - This is the meat and potatoes of the bill anyway.  Parking lots and driveways.  Even overlooking the idea that this repackages an unpopular term with one that may be more acceptable to the public, you also focus the incentives.  You may push homeowners with small driveways and parking areas to replace them with pervious material (dependent on available subsidies), while at the very least making the whole purpose of the tax much more digestible.  "Ah, yeah, the water on my driveway does look like a melted rainbow.  I can't imagine that is very good for the Bay."

Spread the Burden Throughout the State - Maryland is the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  The law passed by the General Assembly limits the tax to  all counties subject to the (take a deep breath) National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Phase I Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit.  I'm sure there are solid studies that back up limiting the tax to 10 of Maryland's 24 counties (seriously, read this), but it has heightened the burden on those ten when a better dispersed scheme may result in a more equitable tax.  But back to what was noted above - municipalities are branches of a larger entity.  We subsidize education, transportation, public works, and many other intra-county expenses, why is this tax an exception?  As a matter of public policy, wouldn't the entire State be better off if better stormwater management projects were implemented?

But I'm just spit-ballin' here.  What are your ideas?

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