Democrats in the House of Delegates, who for the first half of this legislative session shied away from the issue of raising money for transportation, will draft a revenue package of their own in answer to one proposed earlier by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch said his party will consider various tax options in a bid to raise at least $600 million a year for transportation.
Democratic delegates have been spurred into action by the Virginia legislature's approval last week of a plan to raise $880 million for transportation through a combination of tax increases and transfers of funds from other budget priorities.
Busch, an Annapolis Democrat, said the message he delivered to the Democratic caucus at its meeting Tuesday morning was about "the imperative of having a transportation package this year."
"No one wants to take up the issue of revenue but the fact of the matter is your needs here are extraordinary in the area of transportation," Busch said.
In the closed-door meeting, Busch gave a presentation to delegates on the details of the plan adopted by the GOP-controlled Virginia legislature at the behest of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell.
The caucus also received a briefing from a familiar figure from the state's recent past, Deputy U.S. Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari.
Porcari, who served two stretches as Maryland transportation secretary under Govs. Parris N. Glendening and Martin O'Malley, spoke to the caucus for about an hour.
After the meeting Porcari said he delivered a message that he and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood have been emphasizing to other states on the need to raise money for the matching dollars it takes to receive federal funding for a variety of transportation projects.
"If you want to compete for discretionary federal dollars, you're not even in the game if you can't come up with the state match," Porcari said. He said states without adequate money could miss out on federal funding of projects in mass transit, highways, aviation and other area.
"We're telling states what's at stake here and letting them make decisions," Porcari said.
Since early in the session, Busch has been quietly working to forge a House leadership consensus on the issue. Gov. Martin O'Malley has stressed the need for additional transportation dollars without submitting a legislative proposal of his own. Only Miller so far has put a proposal on the table -- a combination of a sales tax on gasoline, a local option to raise the gas tax by as much as 5 cents a gallon, creation of local transit authorities and other ideas.
Miller said he was pleased to see movement on transportation in the House, but added that he still believes the governor should propose a plan of his own.
Under Miller's plan, residents of urban areas with heavy transit needs could end up paying more than rural Marylanders. Busch indicated the House wouldn't go in that direction.
"I don't think we're going to ask the urban subdivisions to pay more in sales tax than in other areas of the state," Busch said.
The speaker said there is a misperception that transit is strictly an urban concern -- noting that one of the best-used transit systems in Maryland is Ocean City's coastal bus line.
"One of the things we showed today is any place in the state has transit," he said.
Unlike Miller, Busch expressed satisfaction with the governor's role -- noting that O'Malley's chief of staff, legislative director and acting transportation secretary appeared at the caucus Tuesday.
Busch said the governor has been letting the legislature take the lead this year.
"Part of it is he feels he tried to lay out a plan last year and was met with a lot of resistance," Busch said.
The speaker said that while he hopes any bill his leadership team drafts will win bipartisan support, he suspects any bill that passes to attract most of its support from the large subdivisions and Democratic delegates.
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