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The transportation lockbox [Editorial]

On the November ballot, voters across Maryland will face Question 1, a proposed constitutional amendment that places restrictions on the ability of the next governor and General Assembly to use transportation money to help balance the general fund. The so-called "lockbox" amendment deserves to be approved, but voters will find there's less here than meets the eye.

And that actually might be a good thing. The debate over the state's Transportation Trust Fund and the claim that Gov. Martin O'Malley "stole" a billion dollars or more from it have been among the more egregious falsehoods to float around this year's political campaigns. Like most whoppers, there's just enough truth — and rancor — associated with the claim to keep it alive despite the facts.

Here's what happened. Since 1984, Maryland's governors and lawmakers have agreed to a series of transfers from the trust fund to cover shortfalls in the general fund. They have also agreed to repayments. At the moment, the scorekeeping is on the cusp of leveling out — the total withdrawn over 30 years stands at $640.1 million while the payback is expected to total $656.3 million by the end of Fiscal 2016, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation.

They've also done something else. At the peak of the recent recession in 2009, the General Assembly agreed to alter the formula for local transportation aid known as "Highway Users Revenue." Instead of paying for pothole repairs, lawmakers reasoned, they'd use the money to help finance popular programs like K-12 public education. Unlike the trust fund diversions, which have been mostly repaid, the highway users formula remains the same (although now the money — about $350 million annually — goes to bolster state transportation projects, not plug holes in the general fund).

Thus, claiming that any money was "stolen" from the Transportation Trust Fund is like suggesting someone paying this month's mortgage by dipping into the driveway repair account is guilty of theft. A lot of county leaders seem to have suffered amnesia about these events, as many stated publicly at the time that they preferred taking the highway users hit over losing state education aid. Road work can be delayed, a child's education can't. We note that Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. reallocated highway users money without any form of repayment under similar circumstances.

Meanwhile, the state's budget for capital improvements to its highways, bridges, transit systems, airports and ports was bolstered by an increase in the gas tax. Everyone should be happy except for local governments that still miss their highway funds, right? Alas, there is lingering concern that perhaps the governor and legislature were too quick to dip into transportation revenue and, if such a choice is made available too readily, that could compromise the state's ability to keep up with its backlog of highway and transit projects.

That's where Question 1 comes in. It requires that in the future, Transportation Trust Fund money can only be used for non-transportation purposes if the governor declares a fiscal emergency and a supermajority (60 percent) of the House of Delegates and Senate approve the transfer. On paper, that sounds like a significant hurdle, but in practice, at least when Democrats already own a supermajority in Annapolis, probably not. Had this amendment been in place five years ago, we strongly suspect little would have been done differently. That's probably why the constitutional amendment passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate in 2013.

Yet there is something to be said for bringing greater clarity to decisions. Simply forcing a recorded vote on this particular choice is worthwhile. If it does nothing else, it sets the record straight and makes clear where everyone stands.

But here's one more thing it accomplishes: It demonstrates that Maryland places great value on transportation infrastructure and will tolerate a reduction in such spending only under extraordinary circumstances (although exactly what constitutes a fiscal emergency under the law is left entirely up to future governors).

Some are opposing Question 1 because the "lock" on this particular lockbox appears to be something less than burglar-proof. But would you want it to be? Banning the practice entirely would make it more likely that lawmakers will opt to raise taxes to cover future budget shortfalls. After all, a diversion from the trust fund is temporary, tax increases tend not to be.

Of course, it's entirely possible that the next governor will choose to restore Highway Users Revenue (on top of the $40 million granted counties and municipalities over the last two years). But keep in mind that the money no longer goes to the general fund, it's helping pay for state transportation projects. Eventually, transportation revenue may increase enough to finance both, but not yet. Sometimes, a little flexibility is a good thing.

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