Mitchell pressured over his opposition to gas tax increase Administration leads effort to sway speaker of House


ANNAPOLIS -- House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, was squeezed from at least four directions yesterday to relent in his opposition to an increase in the state gas tax.

Highway contractors, the Schaefer administration, the president of the state Senate and even one of Mr. Mitchell's House committee chairmen put pressure on the conservative Eastern Shoreman to find a way to raise money for the strapped Transportation Trust Fund.

Insisting that the fund is nearly broke, the Schaefer administration tried to back Mr. Mitchell into a corner by refusing to commit itself to complete future road projects. Without such commitments, Maryland could lose more than $300 million in federal highway funds earmarked for the state.

Mr. Mitchell believes that the department has enough money to make such commitments but is refusing to do so to force him and the legislature into approving a gas tax increase or some other boost in transportation revenues.

The speaker conceded that he does not want to be blamed for the loss of the federal highway funds.

"If we lose it, it will be a contrived loss, in my opinion," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, who favors raising the revenue. "At the present time, it could be likened to a game of chicken between the executive branch and the House of Delegates."

But Mr. Miller said that if the House will go along, the Senate is willing to back an increase in motor vehicle fees as a stopgap method of raising transportation revenues. The issue could be put on the agenda as early as June 26, when the General Assembly is scheduled to reconvene for a brief special session to get the state budget back into balance.

"It's all [up to] Clayton," Mr. Miller said.

Meanwhile, a coalition of state highway contractors held their own news conference yesterday to demonstrate concern that the state's work stoppage on highway projects is having a detrimental effect on the economy.

The coalition, which included P. Flanigan & Sons Inc., Century Engineering, the Maryland Minority Contractors Association and the AFL-CIO, called on the legislature to enact at its June 26 session a program to raise $1.5 billion in transportation revenue over the next five years.

And late last week, Delegate Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, chairman of the Economic Matters Committee and a member of Mr. Mitchell's House leadership group, also said the transportation revenue issue should be discussed at the June 26 session.

Mr. Mitchell acknowledged that he was consulting other House leaders before deciding what to do next. He also complained that the Transportation Department still has not provided the legislature with a detailed plan on how it intends to spend the additional money it is requesting.

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