The flush tax blues

Environmental IssuesEnvironmental PollutionPoliticsCrime, Law and JusticeJustice SystemWater Supply

There's an old joke about "denial" being more than a river in Egypt. Far less amusing is the denial some in Annapolis seem to have about pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and what's required to bring Maryland's sewage treatment plants into compliance with federal regulations.

What has lawmakers grousing is Gov.Martin O'Malley's proposal to double the "flush tax" from an average $2.50 to $5 per month. Since the fee is assessed on water consumption, some people (those who use 2,000 gallons per month) will see an increase of as little as $1.80.

What do the taxpayers stand to receive in return? Tens of millions of dollars each year for the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund to help bring Maryland's wastewater treatment plants into compliance with federal pollution standards. It would also pay for upgraded septic systems and badly needed projects to reduce pollution from storm water runoff.

Such spending would also create jobs and protect the state's most important natural resource from further degradation. If anything, what the governor has proposed may not be enough. His own task force recommended eventually tripling the fee, and leading environmental groups have advocated for quadrupling it.

Yet to hear the talk from opponents, more than a few of whom represent Eastern Shore communities that stand to benefit most from a cleaner Chesapeake Bay, one would think that the governor had just proposed legalized armed robbery. One Republican leader described the tax as "crushing."

While no one relishes the prospect of paying more for anything, it's hard to see $2.50 per month to substantially reduce the flow of excess nitrogen and phosphorus into Maryland's waterways as crushing. Sounds more like money well spent.

That's not just the tree-hugging point of view. It's what most Maryland residents are saying — as revealed by two recent polls touted by a coalition of environmental advocates. Asked whether they'd want to pay more taxes to make the bay safe and healthy "if state leaders and scientists said more tax dollars were needed," 63 percent of respondents said yes.

An even larger majority approved of restrictions on new septic systems, all of which strongly suggests that the so-called "war" on rural Maryland is mostly in the minds of certain tub-thumping politicians trying to stir up anger and resentment.

The facts, on the other hand, are pretty clear. The flush tax was the brainchild of a Republican governor whose chief mistake was to underestimate the cost of upgrading sewage treatment plants. In 2004, the price tag was estimated at $740 million. Now, it's $1.4 billion.

Critics claim the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund was raided, but that's not really true — unless "raiders" customarily replace all the money they've taken. Whatever money was transferred out of the fund to shore up the operating budget was immediately restored through the capital budget. That kind of swap is not ideal, but it's reasonable given the economic downturn and the desire to avoid tax increases as long as possible.

The need for improved sewage treatment in this state can't be postponed forever, particularly if Maryland is to live up to the standards of the federally enforced "pollution diet" to which all states in the Chesapeake watershed are expected to comply. Even if the new fee is approved, the projects will take years to plan and build.

It's all very well to stick up for taxpayers, but what opponents of the flush tax are really saying is that they prefer to see raw sewage dumped in the bay than support a dime-a-day fee hike that nearly two-thirds of voters support. Is that really a winning political message in Maryland, home of blue crabs, skipjacks and rockfish (at least for a little while longer)?

Of course, these recalcitrant lawmakers will say they support cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay — they just don't want to spend any money to do it. That kind of talk sure must be denial, because it isn't to the benefit of the Potomac, the Patuxent or any other river around these parts.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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