Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller reported progress in discussions with Gov. Martin O'Malley on the issue of raising money for roads, bridges and transit projects, saying the governor could submit legislation of his own to fund transportation.
Miller said the governor assured him in a conversation Tuesday morning that he would work with Speaker Michael E. Busch to develop proposals that might be acceptable in the House of Delegates.
"It's definitely progress. It's late in the session for moving forward but it's certainly progress," Miller said. The Senate president's words Tuesday marked a change in tone from his comments about the governor last week, when his message was largely a complaint that the governor was failing to lead.
Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for O'Malley, confirmed the talks between Miller and the governor and said the discussions are continuing.
"The hope would be to get a consensus bill the governor and presiding officers would stand behind." she said.
A Senate source said the governor's assurances came in a meeting with the Senate Democratic caucus during which he expressed agreement with Miller on the need to move forward this session on securing more money for the Transportation Trust Fund. According to the Maryland Department of Transportation, the fund is now so depleted it can pay for little more than operations and maintenance -- with no money available for significant expansion projects to relieve congestion.
The Senate president, a longtime advocate of increased transportation funding, has taken the lead on the politically sensitive issue by proposing wide-ranging legislation that in some cases departs from the state's longstanding approach to transportation funding. Among his proposals are a 3 percent sales tax on gasoline, a local option to raise the state's 23.5-cent-a-gallon gas tax by up to 5 cents, study of a long-term lease of the Intercounty Connector and the creation of transit regional districts that could impose taxes to build major transit projects.
Miller said the governor had not necessarily buying into his proposals -- especially on the transit districts -- but had agreed to keep an open mind. The Senate president said the governor remains interested in using the state's general sales tax -- rather than the gas tax -- as the primary source of new funds.
Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, has stated a preference for a tax that falls directly on users of the roads. He has also taken the position that the state needs to find a solution that funds Baltimore and Washington transit projects without putting the burden on rural areas of the state -- a departure from Maryland's traditional approach of funding all of its transportation needs out of a common fund with no tax variations from region to region.
"You have to consider the entire state, not just the metropolitan areas of the state," he said.
Transportation revenue is not now part of the governor's agenda for this year's session -- even though O'Malley has repeatedly called for increased revenue and spending to alleviate traffic congestion. Last year, the governor made a specific proposal to apply the state's 6 percent sales tax to gasoline only to see lawmakers refuse to go along.
Any measure to raise revenue would face significant resistance, and many lawmakers would like to put off any effort to increase tranportation funding until after the 2014 election. If the governor weighs in with his own poposal, however, transportation may yet emerge as one of the defining issues of the 2013 session.
Matt Gallagher, the governor's chief of staff, said the meeting with the Senate caucus had been "productive" and that many different options had been discussed.
"At some point, we'll have to have a similar conversation with the House," Gallagher said. He said no talks have been scheduled.
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