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 Opinion: Polling Helps Inform More Reasoned Debate 
on Stormwater Fee

(Op Ed by Steve Raabe - March 17, 2015)  Taxing Maryland residents when it rains would be terrible public policy.  No one could predict or control how much the tax would be, and soon we would all be wishing for a drought.  Maryland’s leaders would have to go crazy to pass such a tax.  And at least half of the State’s voters think they did.

Our most recent statewide poll documents the fact that 50% of Maryland voters believe (incorrectly) that people will be taxed when it rains because of the stormwater remediation fee, which some have called the “rain tax.”  Only 29% know this is not true, while the rest of voters are just not sure.

In fact, where it has been implemented, the fee is a fixed amount and not at all related to weather.  But an astonishing 75% of voters in our poll could not even hazard a guess at how much the fee might cost the average homeowner in their own jurisdiction.  Of those who did guess, most guessed too high. In the history of our polling, this is an unusual level of public uncertainty about a matter that has been in the media for several years. 

The conclusion is inescapable that the term “rain tax,” though inaccurate, helps to create this voter opposition.  Many voters in our poll said they could not guess how much the fee is because it will vary with the weather.  As one said, “I feel that if you tax people when it rains, what about when it snows, when it is windy, or when there is a hurricane? Where do you draw the line?”

There is a broad consensus in Maryland that we need to tackle the problem of water pollution.  Across the political spectrum, people want to do their own little bit to help, and 84% still believe that the problem of pollution in local waters can be fixed.

But only 39% of voters believe their own jurisdiction has enough resources to tackle water pollution locally.  If leaders in their county said more money was needed to address water pollution, 50% of voters said they would support an “annual fee that was reasonable,” compared to only 40% who would be opposed.

When voters are read a few simple facts about the new stormwater fee – that the money stays in their local jurisdiction, that it pays for projects that reduce contaminants in the water, and that regulators will hold local governments accountable for progress because they will be testing water quality – opposition to this fee falls to only 35% of voters – about one in three.

This case of the stormwater fee illustrates a chronic ill in our political system today.  Simple facts do not penetrate the public consciousness because instead the debate focuses around two words – “rain tax” – that create dramatically false impressions. 

In focus groups on a wide variety of topics, I hear voters question whether elected officials, media, and other experts like scientists are telling the truth.  And why shouldn’t voters question that?  People do not know what to believe, because they are so often being misled.  This pervasive doubt and cynicism leads to a breakdown in the social contract between citizens and their leaders, making thoughtful policymaking difficult if not impossible.  We do not get the government we deserve.

In the case of the stormwater fee, whether people are for this fiscal mechanism or against it, we will all be better served if we deal in the facts.  Let’s stop calling it a “rain tax” because that’s not what it is.  Let’s focus instead on whether these additional resources will give local governments what they need to tackle a societal problem on which there is a broad consensus.

On any number of issues, let’s demand that our elected officials level with us, even when it runs counter to their own personal beliefs.  The voters can handle the truth.

Steve Raabe is President of OpinionWorks LLC, an independent opinion research organization based in Annapolis. He can be reached at Steve@OpinionWorks.com.

Of interest in the media:

Editorial in The Baltimore Sun: "Carroll Co. talks sense on stormwater," April 2, 2015

Measuring Citizen Stewardship

OpinionWorks is privileged to have been selected by the Chesapeake Bay Trust in 2015 to develop and conduct an innovative Chesapeake Behavior Index, an EPA-funded initiative to measure progress towards a new goal of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.

The updated Watershed Agreement, signed by the six Bay states, District of Columbia, and Federal Government in 2014, for the first time includes a goal for Citizen Stewardship.  The signatories to the Agreement understand that the health of our waters requires much more than regulatory action, legislation, or large capital projects.  For a healthy Bay, we need the individual participation of the 17 million residents who live within the drainage area of the Chesapeake.

Each resident is a steward of his on her own actions – at home, in our own yards, at work and school, as we move around our neighborhoods and towns, and beyond.  Small actions by each of us will add up to much healthier waters, leading to safer places for our kids and pets to swim; local fish, crabs, oysters, and clams that are much safer to eat; and a Bay that returns to a healthier condition that some can remember from decades ago.

Once developed, this Index will be a public instrument that will keep everyone informed of progress towards the Citizen Stewardship Goal:

Increase the number and the diversity of local citizen stewards and local governments that actively support and carry out the conservation and restoration activities that achieve healthy local streams, rivers and a vibrant Chesapeake Bay.