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House approves higher gas tax, sending bill to Senate

The House of Delegates voted Friday to raise taxes on gasoline for the first time since 1992, heeding Gov. Martin O'Malley's call for an infusion of money to pay for roads, mass transit and other transportation priorities.

House passage, by an unofficial vote of 76-63, sends the legislation to the Senate, where it has the strong support of President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

The bill's passage was driven primarily by the votes of Democrats from Baltimore and the large urban counties. No Republicans voted for the increase. Twenty-two Democrats also voted no.

The legislation would raise an estimated $600 million a year in additional revenue for transportation projects when fully implemented in 2016. Motorists would see its first effects July 1, when the price of a gallon of gas would rise by almost 4 cents.

By 2016, after a series of phased-in increases, Marylanders could expect to pay a tax of about 39.5 cents a gallon on transportation, compared with the 23.5 cents they have paid for the past 21 years.

Senate President Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, praised the House majority for approving the tax increase. "It was a tough vote," Miller said. "This is an example of leadership."

He said the Senate would take up the measure next week and predicted it would pass on a close vote.

House supporters of the bill described their yes votes as an unpleasant necessity, especially in view of Virginia's passage of an $880 million transportation plan last month. They said the increased spending on transportation would create an estimated 44,000 construction jobs.

Del. Jolene Ivey, a Democrat who chairs the Prince George's County delegation, said increased transportation revenue is essential if Maryland is to compete successfully with Virginia for a new FBI headquarters that would bring thousands of jobs.

Opponents decried the increase as a punishment of motorists who are already struggling with the cost of filling their tanks. They also complained that too much of the money the bill would raise would go to mass transit instead of roads, and said the bill's protections against the diversion of money to non-transportation purposes are too weak.

"This is nothing more than political terrorism," said Del. Nicholaus Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican. "It will depress our economy. It will depress our citizens and rub salt into the wounds of our economic situation."

But House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat, said a motorist who drives 15,000 miles a year and gets 25 miles per gallon would pay $10.10 a month more in 2016. He said the state needs more money to pay for congestion-relief projects.

"Ten dollars and ten cents a month is a reasonable price to pay to spend less time on the roads," he said. Barve defended the state's spending on transit, saying drivers benefit from having fewer cars on the road.

Unlike most tax increases, the transportation revenue measure has strong support from major business organizations. It was opposed by the service station industry and gas suppliers.

The plan is the result of an agreement struck by O'Malley, Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

The legislation would raise taxes in two ways. It would impose a sales tax on gas, which would rise to 4 percent if Congress allows states to collect sales taxes on Internet purchases and 6 percent if it does not. And it would tie future increases in the 23.5-cents-a-gallon excise tax on gas to inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index.

The indexing provision drew especially harsh criticism from opponents.

"Passing laws that raise taxes automatically without a vote is in my opinion utterly cowardly," said Del. Herbert McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican.

The vote itself created a flap when Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat, brought an abrupt end to the tally, prompting a Republican protest.

Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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