- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2015

The fate of Maryland’s notorious “rain tax” now largely rests with one man — House Speaker Michael E. Busch — after the state Senate last week unanimously approved a bill that would end the state-mandated fee.

Democrats, who hold overwhelming majorities in the General Assembly, have sent mixed signals about Mr. Busch’s intentions for the bill, which is a top priority of Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who assumed office in the deep-blue state this year pledging to control government spending and roll back taxes.

“We’re not sure this is going to pass the House,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said during floor debate.

Mr. Miller was the lead sponsor of the bill and successfully prodded all his fellow Democrats to get onboard.

The Senate’s 46-0 vote Friday buoyed the spirits among opponents of the tax, which is imposed on property owners in the largest counties for impervious surfaces, such as driveways, rooftops and parking lots to fund the cleanup of pollution in stormwater runoff into rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

The legislation also won support from environmentalists, who prefer calling the tax a stormwater management fee rather than a rain tax, because the bill would keep the cleanup requirements in place while eliminating the tax mandate to pay for it.

SEE ALSO: Maryland Senate votes to end ‘rain tax’

But Mr. Busch was noncommittal after the upper chamber sent him the bill.

“We’re certainly open to dealing with the Senate bill,” Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, told The Associated Press after the Senate vote.

Mr. Busch has a history of snuffing out the ambitions of Republican governors.

He was instrumental in killing a plan to legalize casino gambling that was a top priority of the last Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. That bill, which would have allowed slot-machine gambling only in casinos, also had the backing of Mr. Miller, Calvert Democrat.

Not until Mr. Ehrlich was voted out of office after one term and replaced by a Democrat, former Gov. Martin O’Malley, did Mr. Busch let a bill legalizing full-scale casino gambling make it though the House of Delegates.

Mr. O’Malley, who preceded Mr. Hogan as governor, also signed into the law the rain tax as part of his environmental agenda.

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Mr. Hogan campaigned almost exclusively on undoing a slew of taxes imposed under Mr. O’Malley, whose tenure as governor ended after a two-term limit and who now is eyeing a 2016 presidential run.

Mr. Hogan and Democratic leaders began the year with repeated promises to work together and forge bipartisan solutions to the state’s massive budget shortfalls and other problems.

But Democrats quickly rebuffed Mr. Hogan’s efforts to limit increases in education funding and cut raises for state employees to help balance the books.

The rain-tax bill stopped short of a repeal of the fee, as proposed in legislation by Mr. Hogan that Senate Democrats killed in committee. The compromise crafted by Mr. Miller would keep the tax in place but allow affected counties to opt out, although they would still have to find a way to pay for required reductions in runoff pollution.

Still, the Senate’s strong bipartisan support for easing the law gave Mr. Hogan something to cheer about.

“The unanimous, 46-0 vote to repeal the rain tax mandate is a tremendous victory for the taxpayers of Maryland,” the governor said. “As I have said over and over, forcing counties to raise taxes on their citizens — against their will — is wrong and it has to end.”

“I want to thank Senate President Miller and the leaders of the Senate for their hard work and congratulate them for their recognition that the Rain Tax is opposed by the vast majority of Marylanders and that it needs to be repealed,” Mr. Hogan said. “I look forward to working with Speaker Busch and the House leaders over the next few weeks to ensure their support as well.”

Currently, the tax is levied on residents in the state’s nine largest counties and Baltimore City. The affected counties are Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Charles, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s.

• S.A. Miller can be reached at smiller@washingtontimes.com.

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