Legislation to impose fee for water cleanup tabled

DOVER — A House committee voted Wednesday to table a bill that would establish a fee to be paid by Delaware residents and businesses to clean up the state’s waterways.

By a 9-2 vote, members of the House Natural Resources Committee agreed to keep the measure in committee and continue discussion at a later date.

House Bill 270 would create a dedicated fund filled with new surcharges. A fee of up to $40 would be added to individual tax returns, while couples filing a joint return would pay up to $80, and business licenses would cost $45 more than they currently do.

The new taxes could generate up to $20 million per year for state government while potentially bringing in millions more through private investments.

Backers say it is sorely needed, pointing to water cleanliness: According to a 2015 Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control report, more than 90 percent of the state’s waterways fall short of water quality standards due to pollution.

Nearly 30 people testified in the 90-minute committee hearing, with all but one expressing support for the measure.

“Pay us now or pay us later. It’s a modest fee. … It’s minimal, and that’s just to start for what we need,” Tom Brett said. “It’s very easy for our elected representatives to avoid standing up for more money being asked, but we need the courage. We need courageous leaders who are willing to align themselves with the future of our state.

“We owe it to ourselves now. We owe it to our future generations. Our children deserve to be able to swim in the water without getting sick, to be able to drink the water without getting sick and we’re looking for that courage from our elected leaders.”

Committee members agreed Delaware’s water is too polluted and its infrastructure too old and ill-equipped to deal with issues like flooding, but nearly every one took issue with some part of the bill.

A few argued the burden should be placed primarily on big legacy polluters, such as industrial facilities along the Delaware River, but main sponsor Rep. Mike Mulrooney, D-Wilmington Manor, said “that ship has sailed.”

Lawmakers cannot afford to wait, he argued.

“The bottom line is, and everybody in this room knows it, there’s just a need to do something,” he said.

That wasn’t up for debate — the question revolved around, as Rep. Rich Collins, R-Millsboro, asked, “does this bill solve that problem.”

Other legislators applauded the effort while objecting to certain provisions, with Rep. Trey Paradee, D-Cheswold, questioning creating a new bureaucracy that would oversee the trust fund.

According to Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Shawn Garvin, Gov. John Carney supports the intent of the bill but believes it should be discussed as part of a larger conversation around revenue.

The governor’s budget proposal includes $6 million for clean water projects.

The bill could be discussed in committee again in April.

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