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County leaders ask for gas tax

Leaders from Maryland's two largest counties and Baltimore asked lawmakers Tuesday to raise the state's gas tax as a way to fund road projects and create jobs, making their case for an increase as tea party activists rallied against the idea in a plaza outside.

"The last thing you want to do is say, 'You have to pay more taxes,'" Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, a Democrat, told a joint meeting of the House Ways and Means and Appropriations committees. "We are here to say we support your efforts to find revenues."

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the tax increase would not be "a tough sell" in the city because residents grasp the need to patch roads and the jobs that this work would create.

The Annapolis briefing was part of a larger effort orchestrated by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, to build support for a state-level economic stimulus program aimed at reversing the recent job loss trend in Maryland.

The governor's plan involves recasting Maryland's backlog of transportation projects as a component of a massive state-funded public works program that his administration says could put tens of thousands to work.

O'Malley said Monday that he would consider funding the program with a 15-cent increase to the state's gas tax, currently set at 23.5 cents, along with other revenue increases. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown echoed that message Tuesday: "Job creation and infrastructure investment — the two go hand in hand," he said.

The administration tapped these county leaders to speak in part because they'd previously testified in favor of increasing the gas tax. Each came prepared with a list of projects in their districts that would be possible with the increased funds.

Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat, said more money would make possible a $26 million project to widen Hawkins Point Road, a planned $16 million reconstruction of the Harford Road bridge over Herring Run and safety improvements to Reisterstown Road, Park Heights Avenue and Druid Park Drive.

The mayor also noted that nearly a third of the city's bridges are in dire need of repairs and only two-thirds of the city's streets are in "acceptable condition."

Isiah "Ike" Leggett, the Democratic county executive in Montgomery County, said he's been advocating for a higher gas tax for the last five years. He said he'd long predicted that inadequate investment in transportation would result in the persistent traffic snarls that plague his county.

Just yards from the hearing room, a couple of hundred activists rallied in opposition to any additional taxes at a noon event sponsored by the House of Delegate's new tea party caucus.

One woman held up a handwritten sign that said: "GA$ Tax = I move," and another group handed out baseball caps emblazoned with the phrase "Tax Cap." Young organizers worked the crowd gathering names and addresses to build a list they can use if the General Assembly takes up a tax increase, as expected, in January.

The biggest cheers came when Grover Norquist, a leading national advocate for lower taxes, questioned the logic of raising taxes to spur the economy. "They take $20 from somebody who earned it, and give it to somebody who is politically connected, and they say they've created $20," Norquist said. "Our job is to say No to tax increases."

The idea of a gas tax was considered briefly during the annual 90-day legislative session that ended in April, but was almost immediately shelved amid concerns about rising gas prices and worries that legislative action could upset what was seen as a fragile economic recovery.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who is gauging support in his chamber, said Monday that the state's county executives would have to help lobby their delegations to build a case for any tax increases.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a longtime supporter of raising the gas tax, said Tuesday that he will "try to sell" the idea of a revenue package to senators in January, but he warned that a 15-cent hike is probably too high.

"An increase has to happen, but the extent of the increase has to be decided," Miller said.

He also noted that the stimulus ideas need to be "fleshed out."

"It's a jobs bill, it's an economic development issue, it's a quality of life issue," he said.



Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this report.

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