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Franchot: Gas tax increase won't save the bay

Of all the arguments I have heard to support an increase in Maryland's gas tax, the oddest by far is the notion — as expressed recently by Karen Hosler — that doing so would be good for the environment ("Can a Gas Tax Increase Save the Bay?" Feb. 26). Proponents of this theory suggest that, by raising gas prices to levels that would be painful if not impossible for working people to bear, Annapolis lawmakers could force countless families to overhaul their daily routine by leaving their cars in the driveway. Or failing that, inspire them to head to their local car dealerships to trade their current vehicles in for newer, "greener" models.

In better times, this notion could be gently dismissed as a well-intentioned but impractical strategy for addressing our environmental challenges. In our current economic climate, however, it reflects a callous indifference to working people throughout our state who are working harder than ever just to keep a roof over their heads, feed their families and save for college and retirement.

Ms. Hosler writes that "to the extent that Marylanders find the gas tax so burdensome that they drive less or trade up to more fuel-efficient vehicles, the bay gets a little breathing space." Where, exactly, is a typical Maryland family expected to find such opportunities to "drive less?" People need to drive to work. They need to drop their kids off at school and then take them to Little League practice. They need to run the essential errands of a typical family, from the stops at the grocery store every week to those trips to the family doctor.

It is far more likely that people who are able to do so will cross state boundaries to purchase their gas for a significantly lower price. Those who can't will grudgingly pay the higher prices at the pump but will forced to cut back on other purchases. Either way, Maryland's small businesses — which create local jobs, pay state taxes and give back to their communities in countless ways — will be adversely affected.

Contrary to Ms. Hosler's hopes, it is just as unrealistic to believe that people will respond by hitting their local showrooms in search of new hybrid cars.

According to federal data, the State of Maryland ranked 48th nationally in wage growth in 2011 and was one of only eight states where hourly wages actually declined during that period. The basic laws of economics and common sense suggest that people who are bringing home smaller paychecks, and thus have less disposable income, will be increasingly reluctant to spend money for non-essential purchases.

As a 20-year veteran of the Maryland House of Delegates and now as comptroller, I have been a passionate, consistent supporter of measures to protect the Chesapeake Bay from sprawl development while expanding our state's transit network. As the state's chief fiscal officer, though, I'm aware that the Maryland economy is still powered primarily by consumer spending. It should go without saying that we cannot revive a consumer-driven economy by digging deeper into the pockets of families who are already struggling to make ends meet. I agree with Ms. Hosler that improving the health of the Chesapeake Bay should be a priority, but the gas tax is simply the wrong prescription at the worst possible time.

Peter Franchot, Annapolis

The writer, a Democrat, is Maryland's comptroller.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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