Hours before the House was scheduled to debate a proposed increase in gas taxes supported by Gov. Martin O'Malley, Republicans lawmakers excoriated the plan Wednesday as a $2 billion drain on taxpayers' wallets over the next six years.
House Republicans called a news conference to promise to fight the plan to raise revenue for roads, bridges, mass transit and other transportation needs. The plan would raise taxes on gas by 3.8 cents a gallon on July 1 and add increments in subsequent years.
By mid-2016, the Republicans said, the increase could reach 44.1 cents compared with the 23.5 cents Maryland motorists have paid since 1992, when the tax was last raised.
The plan is the result of painstaking behind-the-scenes negotiations among O'Malley, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch. The talks produced an agreement early this month -- more than halfway into the session.
House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell took aim at the late introduction of the measure, suugesting that the governor was distracted by out-of-state travels.
"The governor waited until the 55th day of the session to submit a very complicated bill," he said.
As amended by a House committeee, the bill raises taxes on gas in two ways -- by phasing in a sales tax on gasoline and tying future increases in the current cents-per-gallon gas excise tax to the Consumer Price Index.
Del. Herbert McMillan of Anne Arundel County charged that the bill is "complicated by design."
"It's designed to confuse people," he said.
Del. Ron George, also from Anne Arundel, took aim at the indexing provision -- long favored by O'Malley.
"This is the first time in the history of this state that a tax has been indexed to inflation," he said. "His legacy of the eternal gas tax will continue to haunt Maryland motorists for many decades to come."
Del. Susan Aumann of Baltimore County said the "lockbox" provisions of the bill -- designed to deter diversions of the money for non-transportation purposes -- are insufficient. The bill would require three-fifths approval in both houses and the relevant committees to approve such a transfer.
"A three-fifths majority is no challenge considering the makeup of the committees and the games that can be played," she said. Republicans now control less than two-fifths of the seats in each chamber.
The House is expected to work on dozens of proposed amendments to the transportation bill long into Wednesday night. House leaders have expressed confidence they have enough support to pass the bill and send it to the Senate.
It is unlikely the legislation will gain much -- if any -- Republican support.
Republican lawmakers said they see no need to raise revenue this year.
"Let's protect the Transportation Trust Fund before you raise revenue," said O'Donnell, of Calvert County.
O'Donnell also said that before the state raises new revenue, it should address what Republicans see as an unbalanced transportation spending program -- with too much allocated to mass transit and too little spent on roads.
Proponents of the transportation package said Maryland can no longer wait to raise transportation revenue. They note that money for any projects beyond basic maintenance is expected to run out by 2017 and note that the Republican-controlled Virginia legislature just passed a $880 million-a-year transportation revenue package.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Annapolis Democrat, said new money for transportation improvements will be critical to Maryland's attempt to attract a new FBI headquarters to Greenbelt. That location is competing with sites in Northern Virginia for a facility that could bring an estimated 11,000 jobs.
House Republicans scoffed at O'Malley's contention that there's a critical need for revenue.
"We don't have a crisis. It's a crisis of his own creation," said Del. Tony McConkey of Anne Arundel.
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