- - Tuesday, December 2, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Flawed and cumbersome tax laws afflict taxpayers everywhere, but few are as irksome, as silly and as constitutionally dangerous as Maryland’s “stormwater remediation fee,” also known as “the rain tax,” including whatever penumbras and emanations that followed. Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, a Republican, vowed during his campaign to free taxpayers from the overreaching state law that claims to protect the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways from polluted runoff, flooding and erosion. Together with others, he argues persuasively that it amounts to little more than a weather levy, with accompanying clouds.

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas describes the rain tax as an example of how the state overtaxes its residents, and he invites Maryland businesses to relocate to Texas, where the sun shines on business every day. Democratic legislators nevertheless troll for new ways to tax, but this time they have maybe gone too far.

The Washington Post reports that Maryland has offered tax incentives to religious congregations that can prove they are complying with the Maryland law’s mandates and their ministers are preaching “green” ideology from the pulpits. The churches, synagogues and mosques get modest relief, but in practice the tax man doubles as extortionist. The Constitution makes no exception to the First Amendment for a federal, state or local government to monitor or prescribe theology, however passionate the accountants and budget-makers may be. If the state of Maryland can write theology about the weather, it can monitor the Roman Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the pope, or whether the Baptists can preach deep-water baptism.

The rain tax started life as House Bill 87, enacted in 2012. Its goal was to link the Clean Water Act to the environmental health of the Chesapeake Bay, as determined by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Tax Foundation notes that the rain tax is a stormwater tax, based on the amount of “impervious surface” on a property. The more building space and pavement on land, including parking lots, roads and roofs, the more money owed to mitigate the runoff damage. Government property is exempt from the tax, while religious and nonprofit organizations (including environmental organizations) are not.” Steeples are easy targets for the tax collector.

Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and the District of Columbia were identified by the EPA when it issued original “guidelines” identifying mandatory reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that damage the Chesapeake Bay. But only Maryland began tinkering with taxes. Democrats insist they have no choice, since drawing funds from other budgets such as those for public services and schools is not an option. The taxpayer might well ask, why not? The federal government and the state of Maryland thus enacted stormwater remediation mandates. Maryland House Bill 987, passed in 2012, requires the largest jurisdictions in Maryland, including Baltimore County, to assess fees to pay for these mandates.



Fees can be imposed if there is a “surface” on land or steeple that doesn’t sufficiently absorb rainwater. But in Prince George’s County, the Rev. Nathaniel B. Thomas of Forestville New Redeemer Baptist Church and his colleagues rightly object. “We challenged the fee,” Mr. Thomas said. “Once Uncle Sam finds a way to take your money, he doesn’t stop.”

With relief to churches and synagogues, Maryland lawmakers are adding insult to injury. Remunerating the holy by getting them to preach your gospel is surely unconstitutional and discriminates against preachers who won’t preach the environmental word. The preachers, rabbis and imams should join Mr. Thomas to speak against this assault on the Constitution with one voice. Once the state tells a preacher what to preach, it’s a short step to telling him what he can’t.

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