Republicans in the House of Delegates denied Tuesday that there is any need to raise taxes on gasoline to pay for the state's transportation needs, contending the state should instead cut the share of its spending that goes to mass transit and stop diversions of transportation revenue to other purposes.
At a news conference in Annapolis, the House GOP caucus criticized a legislative package Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has introduced to jump-start the process of raising transportation revenues.
The Republicans said Miller's proposal to apply a 3 percent sales tax to gasoline would add 10 cents a gallon to the cost of gas. They a provision of Miller's bill allowing local governments to impose a gas tax of up to 5 cents a gallon could bring that total to 15 cents.
Miller, in turn, described House Republicans as "Neanderthals."
Meeting with reporters Tuesday morning, Republican delegates decried a trend under Gov. Martin O'Malley toward increased transit operating spending at the expense of roads.
Del. Herb McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican, said mass transit soaks up 57 percent of transportation operations funding while serving only 8.8 percent of Marylanders.
"The way we spend our money on transit is far out of alignment," McMillan said.
The 57 percent figure is accurate in terms of operating expenses but does not reflect the state's capital spending on transportation, where the majority of the state's road dollars are allocated. On the capital side, highway spending makes up 43 percent of next year's budget compared with 38 percent for transit.
McMillan said Maryland should also cut transit spending by containing labor costs, saying transit workers got raises at a time when other state employees' salaries were frozen.
Del. Susan Krebs, a Carroll County Republican, said the Maryland Transit Administration should also increase basic fares from $1.60 to $2.25 so that it can recover a greater percentage of its costs from riders.
"Fares have been too low and costs increasing exponentially," she said.
The GOP lawmakers also denounced the practice of diverting money from the Transportation Trust Fund to balance budgets during economic downturns -- a budgetary fix employed by O'Malley and previous governors. They offered their own version of a constitutional amendment creating a "lockbox" shielding transportation revenue from what they called "raids," calling a similar proposal by Miller too weak.
McMillan also slammed Miller's proposal to create transit authorities in urban areas of the state that could impose taxes to pay for large rail and bus projects -- an idea Miller advanced in part as a response to Republican complaints that parts of the state that rely on transit should pay more than rural areas. McMillan said such a system would give unelected bureaucrats the power to raise taxes on Marylanders who live in areas included in transit districts.
In remarks later in the morning, Miller lashed back at House Republicans, comparing them unfavorable with GOP members in his chamber.
"These people are Neanderthals in terms of their thinking,” Miller told reporters. “The House Republicans, they're just total obstructionists.
Their job is to say no to everything. No, no, no, no. On the Senate side, you have people who say, 'How do I make this better?' "
Miller called for “statesmanship” to come up with a solution that can get enough votes to pass. He said that Republicans, particularly those in rural areas, recognize the need for more money for roads and bridges. He characterized their opposition as fear for political repercussions of voting for a solution.
“This is not a popular issue,” Miller said. “People have to be pulled, drug to take a position on this issue. I've put it out there, and I hope somebody bites and says, ‘Let's move forward.’ “
But House Republican made it clear they are not about to be pulled into supporting tax increases. They said that instead of raising taxes, Gov. Martin O'Malley should shift $1 billion from the general fund over three years to repay money that wasn't put into local highway aid in recent years.
Whether the state's general "owes" money to the Transportation Trust Fund is a matter of political debate. According to the Department of Legislative Services, the state has fully repaid money taken from the state's share of the fund. However, there are no plans to restore money taken from what had been considered the local share of highway funds during the state's recession-related budget problems.
In response to Miller, House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell of Southern Maryland and Minority Whip Jeanne Haddaway-Riccio issued a statement expressing disappointment.
“We simply disagree on a fundamental philosophical issue – that is hardly a reason to resort to name-calling. However, his remarks are indicative of the lack of civil discourse that prevents good public policy from moving forward in Maryland," they said.
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