Md. Senate stalling on gas tax Budget committee expects House defeat


ANNAPOLIS -- The Schaefer administration's proposed 5 percent gasoline tax appeared in deeper trouble yesterday as the chairman of the Senate's budget committee said he would not pass the bill unless he had indications that the House would approve it.

Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, said he personally favors the gas tax. However, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, has repeatedly said he does not favor any "major" tax increases this year. Mr. Levitan said he has not received any indication of a change of heart by Mr. Mitchell.

"He is the key on the gas tax issue," Mr. Levitan said of Mr. Mitchell. "Even if we had the votes over here, for us to pass the gas tax just to have it die on the House side wouldn't be the sensible thing to do."

The administration proposal is designed to add $1.5 billion to the state's Transportation Trust Fund over the next five years.

Mr. Levitan, whose committee held a hearing on the gas tax yesterday, said he does see support for the other part of the administration's transportation package -- increasing auto and truck registration fees and other Motor Vehicle Administration fees. Under the administration's proposal, annual motor-vehicle registration fees would increase from $27 to $34. These fee increases could raise more than $500 million.

In addition to the opposition put forth by Mr. Mitchell, Baltimore City legislators have said they will oppose any gas tax increase that occurs without a tax restructuring that would benefit the city.

"I'm not voting for it because I don't see anything in return for the city," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore, vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

Senator Hoffman supported Mr. Levitan's decision to wait and see what action the House will take on the gas tax. "We're not going to touch this until the House decides what it's going to do," she said.

During yesterday's hearing, administration officials and representatives from the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Chamber of Commerce all testified that the state's highway construction program would be hit hard if the General Assembly fails to enact a gas tax increase. Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer said the state would have to forgo $215 million worth of transportation projects.

Maryland faces a $583 million deficit in its transportation budget over the next 5 1/2 years. That has jeopardized some $1.2 billion in planned road, rail and aviation projects, everything from bridge replacements to adding lanes to U.S. 50 between Annapolis and Washington.

"The department is facing a financial crisis," said Mr. Lighthizer. "That is why we need the additional revenues now and not in the future."

However, groups representing truckers and other drivers strongly opposed the tax increase, citing increased costs and the fact that transportation funds are being transferred to cover deficits in the General Fund.

"We could support a gas tax if it went to highways and bridges," said William F. Zorzi Sr., a lobbyist for Maryland's chapter of the American Automobile Association.

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