Political Notebook: Both sides of aisle oppose raising gas tax

Howard County's most liberal and conservative state legislators agree that gasoline taxes shouldn't go up while prices are so high, but that leaves unanswered questions about how to pay for transportation projects.

Gov. Martin O'Malley is trying to revive discussion of the state's depleted transportation fund in anticipation of the issue's coming up in the fall special General Assembly session intended to redraw congressional district lines.

If Howard's delegation is any measure, it will be tough to pass anything. Everyone agrees there is a problem, but there's no consensus on a solution, and few are suggesting specific options. Among the ideas mentioned are broadening the state sales tax to apply to various services as well as goods or applying the 6 percent sales tax to gasoline in addition to the per-gallon tax.

Many are like Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Democrat who has a fervent wish: "One keeps hopeful things will get better."

But that seems a distant goal, and after several years of reduced state highway aid, locally maintained roads are deteriorating and new projects are stalled.

"I don't have a magic bullet answer," Pendergrass said. "I know how much gas costs. I buy it." She suggested imposing a surcharge on gasoline, but only if the retail price falls below a pre-determined level.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat who may be Howard's most liberal legislator, said in an interview that she would have a hard time supporting a gas tax increase now, although she did for years.

"We cannot put the people at the bottom of the income scale in worse shape than they are already," said Bobo.

"People who are right near the bottom and are hanging on by their fingernails need to be at the top of our agenda," she told a meeting of the Howard County Citizens Association in Columbia on Monday night. She advocated a greater emphasis on mass transit to combat traffic congestion. Maryland's 23.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax hasn't changed since 1992.

Dels. Warren E. Miller and Gail H. Bates, both conservative Republicans, also oppose raising the gas tax, though that's not a new position for them. They, along with Republican Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, say the state has raided the Transportation Trust Fund too often and Democrats have refused to accept Republican proposals for cuts in other areas.

"We have presented alternatives consistently for the past five years," but they were rejected, Bates said. "It's in their court now," she said.

"To increase the gas tax gives more fuel to the fire to spend," Kittleman said.

Wary of fast-rising gas prices, the General Assembly did not approve a proposed 10-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase this year, even tied to a constitutional amendment that would have safeguarded the money except in an economic emergency.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, who serves on O'Malley's commission on transportation funding, endorsed that bill and said he still favors starting with a 10-cent gas tax increase coupled with restrictions for taking money from the fund for other purposes. But as gasoline use drops, "we've got to think differently" he said, in generating new revenues for roads and mass transit.

Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, who as chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee has more influence on the issue than many, said he too is stumped for a specific solution.

"That's going to have to be dealt with," Kasemeyer, a Democrat, said at the HCCA meeting. "We still don't have an answer there." Earlier, he suggested that perhaps people living in central Maryland's metropolitan counties served by mass transit may have to pay a bit more somehow to relieve pressure on gas tax revenues. "Something has to be done for mass transit," he said.

Generally, Republicans favor more budget cuts, noting that Medicaid eligibility has been expanded in recent years. Pendergrass, a specialist in health care, rejected any reduction in Medicaid to pay for roads. "Health care is more important than roads," she said.

Miller says the state should find some new source of revenue for mass transit or raise fares enough to pay for the system, leaving all the gas tax proceeds for roads. Del. Steven DeBoy, a Democrat who represents Elkridge and parts of conservative-voting southwestern Baltimore County, said he too is against raising the gas tax. "That's out of the question," he said. Del. James Malone, another Democrat, did not respond to requests for comment.

Democrats believe some new revenue source is needed, but they can't agree on one. Bobo's favorite would be requiring corporations who do business in Maryland to pay taxes in Maryland, not in places with lower rates, like Delaware.

"There's got to be increased revenue to put towards transportation," said Sen. James N. Robey, a Democrat. But Robey said he can't support a gas tax increase now. "It's not a reasonable solution."

Meanwhile, the potholes keep forming, the traffic keeps getting worse and the roads keep deteriorating. Howard's top priority is modernizing the intersection between U.S. 1 and Route 175, as traffic to and from Fort Meade grows. There are others, including widening Route 32 to become a divided highway up to Interstate 70, adding a third northbound lane to U.S. 29 south of Columbia and widening northbound Snowden River Parkway and Route 108 in Columbia. The county also wants to boost the frequency of Howard Transit stops.

Del. Frank Turner, a Democrat on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee who favors a small gas tax increase automatically pegged to inflation, said the need can't be ignored: "Asphalt cost $62 a ton the last time the gas tax was raised, he said, and now it's $502 a ton." The longer the roads aren't maintained, the more it will cost to eventually fix them. "We're going to pay," he said.

The idea of separating mass transit from gas tax proceeds baffles Democrat Guy Guzzone. "I don't think that makes any sense at all," he said, because the more people use mass transit, the fewer cars are on the roads. Miller says he's always seeing nearly empty Howard Transit buses in Howard County:"Sometimes I'm lucky to see one person on board."

The General Assembly has increased a range of fees over the last few years to boost transportation funding, Miller said, but if the money is then used elsewhere, where's the benefit?

"It's not going to go for what it's intended for," Miller said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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