- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - A proposal to end state-mandated fees for cleaning pollution out of stormwater got another boost Wednesday when the chairman of a Maryland House committee said he would make the bill a priority.

Del. Kumar Barve, a Democrat who chairs the House Environment and Transportation Committee, said panel members will probably want to change some aspects of the measure, but they will do so with the objective of making a good bill.

“This is something that is now very much the top of my priority agenda for work,” Barve assured Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the bill sponsor who testified on the measure.

Barve said he will form a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the committee to thoroughly review the measure.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has made repeal of the fees a priority of his first legislative session. The governor’s own bill for repeal was voted down, but the Senate unanimously approved Miller’s proposal.

“It’s solving a problem of a very contentious issue, a very contentious issue that a lot of misinformation has been put out about,” Miller said.

The fees resulted from a measure approved in 2012 in the last hour of the state’s legislative session. It requires nine counties and the city of Baltimore to pay fees to raise money needed to clean pollution from stormwater runoff that gets into the state’s waterways and the Chesapeake Bay.

Miller said the measure not only repeals the mandated fees, but actually improves the overall goal of financing federally mandated stormwater remediation. That’s because it requires local officials to prove they can pay to meet federal requirements to clean up polluted stormwater, even if they don’t charge fees to do that.

“The state needs to know how this fee is being implemented and what it’s being implemented for,” Miller said.

The bill also includes an enforcement provision that allows the state to withhold state funding for programs that pay for waterway improvement.

The law has proven to be one of the most nettlesome and politically controversial statutes in years, and Hogan campaigned vigorously against it last year. Critics, including Hogan, have derided the fees as a “rain tax.”

However, supporters of the law say that’s a politically motivated misnomer. They say the fees were approved to raise money to clean pollution out of runoff, the only source of waterway pollution on the rise.

Alison Prost, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the state can’t go back to a system of broken promises, where water quality is allowed to deteriorate.

“So Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the members of Clean Water for Healthy Families, we’re OK with increased flexibility - so long as there’s increased accountability, and that all of us can see that the numbers and the projects are adding up to cleaner water for our communities,” Prost said.

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