By KENNETH R. FLETCHER, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Farmers, sportsmen, environmentalists—even some development groups—testified Friday in support of a bill that would create a "Green Fund" dedicated to Chesapeake Bay restoration with money raised by development taxes.
The money would fund programs that curb pollution from urban and farm runoff, the "greatest threat to the Chesapeake Bay," said sponsor Delegate Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore.
But the bill is expected to face a rough road in the Senate, and some business groups said Friday that while cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is important, the bill comes at a bad time.
"We should not try to lay another tax burden on the business community when they are already being asked to bear an incredible burden of new taxes" in the governor's $1.7 billion tax package, said Heather Hamilton of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.
She said the green fund would cost Maryland businesses about $41 million annually.
The bill would levy a yearly tax of 1 cent per square foot of impervious surface area, such as rooftops and parking lots, on businesses and institutions, including churches, day care centers and other facilities.
Homeowners would pay a fee based on the size of their homes, with a house between 1,501 and 3,000 square feet owing $20 yearly.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation estimates an average church would pay $100 per year, a fast-food restaurant would pay $320 and a big-box retailer would pay $3,250.
The bill allows businesses to reduce the tax by up to 50 percent by implementing runoff-reducing strategies like "green" roofs or other stormwater management practices.
Bryson Popham, a lobbyist for the Building Owners and Managers Association of Metropolitan Baltimore, said the bill should include even more ways to offset the tax. Those measures "encourage people to make the changes necessary to help the bay," he said.
But John Kortecamp, executive vice president of the Home Builder's Association of Maryland, said the bill is the right thing to do.
"The Chesapeake belongs to all of us," Kortecamp said. "Its restoration is a shared obligation of all Marylanders."
Top state officials who testified at the hearing said a dedicated fund is crucial for restoration programs.
"Time is running out for the bay," said Department of Natural Resources Secretary John Griffin.
"We have spread our resources way too thin," he said. The bill would be "critical to reducing nutrients and sediments in the next few years."
The bill would raise an estimated $68 million in fiscal 2010, of which 40 percent would go to the Department of Agriculture to help reduce farm nutrient runoff. The Department of Natural Resources would get 10 percent and up to 45 percent could go to local governments for stormwater management and other restoration projects, if they provide matching funds.
McIntosh said she hopes the bill will pass during the special session. Similar legislation that would tax only new development passed the House last spring, but stalled in the Senate.
"If we don't find this funding source now, there's not going to be a source," she said, then calling on the Senate for its support. "If you want to leave the bay in the same condition, it's on your back."
But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, does not plan on dealing with the Green Fund legislation during the special session, said spokeswoman Lisa Fulton.
Miller introduced a bill this week that dedicates a fund for the bay, though the source and amount of funding have not been worked out yet, Fulton said. Miller said in a news conference Friday that he opposes homeowner fees.
"Raising money to save the bay is laudable and very important," said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George's. But with legislators focused on the governor's tax revenue package and slots, "I'm not sure an extensive debate could happen in this session."