Negative Framing of “Rain Tax” Sways Public Opinion

A new statewide poll in Maryland, released March 13 by The Clean Water, Healthy Families Coalition, finds that inaccurate perceptions and continued misinformation have greatly enhanced opposition to that state’s stormwater fee. Opponents of the fee have labeled it a “rain tax,” and poll results show that this negative framing has swayed public attitudes.

For instance, 50% of voters incorrectly believe that people will actually be taxed when it rains. Many voters are not sure, leaving only 29% who know they will not be taxed when it rains.

Under a 2012 mandate, the state’s 10 most populous jurisdictions, which include Phase I municipal separate storm sewer system communities, are required to charge a fee to pay for their stormwater management programs. But on April 16, the Maryland House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a repeal of the state-mandated stormwater fee. This may seem like a setback to stormwater funding, but the new legislation — SB 863 ― still requires that counties comply with and fund federal stormwater requirements. Counties will be required to specify funding sources and report a 5-year projection of costs and revenues. The primary difference is in the choice of how to fund stormwater programs. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation called the bill a “remarkable victory.” SB 863 is now headed to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who supports repeal of the fee.

OpinionWorks LLC of Annapolis, Md. conducted the poll of 594 registered voters. “Our survey found that the rhetoric surrounding the fee has a negative and distorting effect on voters’ understanding of how they will pay, how much they will pay, and even if they have to pay,” said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks. “Despite the attention on this fee, it is still widely misunderstood. This scientifically conducted poll documents a very different picture of voter opinion than the exaggerated narrative of overwhelming opposition that has been created around this issue.”

Most voters — 75% — were unaware of how much they are charged for the stormwater fee or guessed they were charged more. Initially, based just on what residents had heard or read, 40% of respondents said they opposed the fee, 23% supported it, and 26% had no opinion. Yet, when basic facts about the fee and its purpose to clean up polluted runoff were presented, support doubled to 46%, which outweighed the opposition at 35%.

“More than 1400 communities in 41 states across the country have dedicated stormwater fee programs in place to reduce polluted runoff and manage local flooding,” said Halle Van der Gaag, executive director of Blue Water Baltimore. “Marylanders need to know that these programs work all across the country to protect our health; support our infrastructure; and provide engineering, planning, and construction jobs to our citizens.” Read more in the polling memo.

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