A diverse coalition of business groups, unions and transit advocates is urging Maryland voters to put a constitutional "lockbox" on state transportation funds, making it harder for governors and lawmakers to divert the money to other purposes.
Andrew Feldman, a spokesman for the coalition, said more than a dozen groups will contribute money to back Question 1 on the Nov. 4 ballot, which would for the first time give transportation funding explicit protection in the state Constitution.
"It's going to be a full effort to communicate with as many voters as possible to make sure they understand the question," Feldman said.
The General Assembly approved a constitutional amendment last year intended to curb the transfer of money from the Transportation Trust Fund to the general fund to balance the state budget. That's a budget tactic that has been used by every governor since Harry Hughes in the 1980s, but critics say the diversions have weakened public support for necessary increases in transportation funding.
The amendment, sponsored by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, passed in tandem with the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act of 2013, which raised the state's gas tax for the first time in two decades. Some of the lawmakers who supported the bill did so only after receiving assurances that the "lockbox" amendment would pass.
Legislative approval of the amendment leaves the final word up to the voters.
Proponents say they have seen no signs of organized opposition to the lockbox amendment, but Feldman said they want to make sure puzzled voters don't say no reflexively.
"The biggest hurdle will be the wording of the question and the current political environment," he said.
Del. Andrew Serafini, a Washington County Republican, agreed that no organized opposition has emerged. But he's urging voters to vote against what he calls a "worthless" amendment.
"It's not a lockbox. It's not very difficult to get past," he said.
The lockbox amendment was written to put a barrier around the state's roughly $4.6 billion Transportation Trust Fund, which is financed with revenue from the gas tax, titling taxes, vehicle registration fees and other sources.
But lawmakers didn't want to make it impossible to use those funds to balance the budget in dire circumstances. The proposal protects only core state transportation spending — not aid to local governments for fixing roads.
The amendment would allow the transfer of those funds if the governor declares a fiscal emergency, and lawmakers in each chamber agree with a three-fifths vote.
Some Republicans believe the three-fifths requirement is inadequate. Democrats alone hold more than three-fifths of the seats in the House and the Senate.
Feldman, a principal in the public relations and marketing firm Feldman Deeter Strategies, said the backers of the amendment include the Greater Baltimore Committee, the Maryland Association of Realtors, AAA Mid-Atlantic, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the carpenters union, and several transportation and construction trade associations.
He said the coalition, called the Committee to Protect Marylanders' Transportation Trust Fund, expects to have a budget of $400,000 to $500,000 and to run TV and radio ads.
Spokesmen for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Anthony G. Brown and Republican rival Larry Hogan said their candidates support the amendment.
Del. Herb McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican, shares Serafini's concerns. "It has as much strength as a wet paper bag. A hamster could get out of it," he said.
Nevertheless, McMillan said he will probably vote yes, in the hope that Republicans someday would have the numbers to block such moves.
Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said his organization has been seeking an amendment that would protect the trust fund for years. He said the three-fifths requirement would reinforce the message that citizens expect transportation revenues to be used for their intended purposes.
"This is a situation where the perfect should not be the enemy of the good, and this is clearly a good protection," he said.