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News Opinion Editorial

Hard road for gas tax

February can be the cruelest month. In the midst of the cold, gray winter bleakness, it's tempting to daydream of a simpler life without hard work, heavy lifting or personal sacrifice, where nobody ever has to pay more in taxes yet all necessities of modern transportation — from airport runways and port dredging to eight-lane highways and bus lines — are magically provided.

In other words, how easy it would be right now to be a Maryland state senator or delegate opposed to raising the state's gas tax from 1992 levels.

Indeed, if we were members of the General Assembly, the press releases and speeches would practically write themselves. We would castigate anyone for daring to suggest that the 23.5-cents-per-gallon rate set 21 years ago, when a gallon of unleaded gasoline sold for about $1.13 instead of the average $3.78 of today, was somehow inadequate because of inflation.

Consumers can't afford to pay more at the pump, we would declare. Why, even a nickel or a dime a gallon is far too much. Of course, we would have to ignore the fact that Maryland's Transportation Trust Fund is running on fumes and that the construction program is about to be reduced to little other than pot hole repair.

Doing nothing about the gas tax essentially puts in moth balls the Red Line, the east-west light rail project in Baltimore that offers the city one of its best chances ever for economic revitalization, new jobs and self-sufficiency. But one need not mention that. Nor the fact that the Baltimore-Washington area has some of the worst traffic congestion in the entire country and that getting stuck in traffic is costing drivers billions of dollars in lost time and travel costs — far more than constituents would be paying at the pump.

Here's what we'd say instead: Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly have stolen a billion dollars from the trust fund. How can we raise the gas tax when they'll just steal that money again?

Of course, we can say stuff like that because most of our audience probably doesn't know beans about the state's transportation finances, and it sure sounds good even though it's highly misleading. We would never mention that the money transferred from the actual capital budget (the pot of money that pays for state highway and transit construction) has been repaid, and only reductions to local highway user grants were not.

And what is a highway user grant? Aha, chances are the voters in my district don't know that it's just a form of local aid, and that many other Maryland governors (including the last Republican one) have done the same thing. Such transfers have made it possible to spare vital education, health and public safety programs from more disastrous cuts during the worst of the recession.

What would have happened if highway user revenue hadn't been touched? Counties likely would have been forced either to severely reduce spending on their single biggest line item — public schools — or raise property taxes. Would voters have preferred higher tax bills or teacher layoffs to postponing local road resurfacing (the most significant effect of highway revenue cuts)? Probably not. Would it have saved the trust fund from insolvency? Absolutely not. We'd still be in the exact same position.

Oh, and by the way, we certainly wouldn't say anything about all the General Fund money that's been "stolen" by the Transportation Trust Fund over the years, like a portion of the corporate and sales tax revenue stream. Wouldn't want our constituents to realize that this stealing business has been a two-way street.

Meanwhile, we'd be fat and happy knowing that while leaving the gas tax at 1992 levels will be disastrous for the state's economic well-being in the long run, the whole thing won't collapse in 2014 when we run for re-election. The next generation of suckers can worry about the future (beginning in, oh, about 2015, when the Red Line was supposed to be built).

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller was criticized this week for calling House Republicans Neanderthals for opposing the gas tax under any circumstance. Senator Miller, who has shown the most leadership on this issue of anyone in the State House, deserved the critique and should immediately apologize to early human-relatives everywhere. After all, Neanderthals may have been crude and primitive, but they probably had more sense than to grunt out such bunkum.

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