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Mitchell gives OK Md. auto fees may rise Motorists also face gas tax boost, House speaker says


ANNAPOLIS -- House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, unable to hold the fort any longer, capitulated yesterday to Schaefer administration demands for higher fees to replenish the state's transportation program.

The decision probably means that before the year is out, Maryland motorists will pay more for a variety of services provided by the Motor Vehicle Administration. Moreover, Mr. Mitchell conceded, they are likely to face a major gas tax increase in 1992.

The speaker agreed to go along with legislation that will permit fee increases for such services as vehicle title certificates, driver's licenses, certified copies of driving records and other documents the MVA provides, in exchange for a promise from the administration that the money will

be used on projects for which matching federal funds might otherwise be lost.

Mr. Mitchell estimated that the higher fees, combined with increased borrowing that the additional revenue would permit, could generate as much as $59 million.

The fee-increase plan is now expected to be considered at a special one-day General Assembly session that had already been scheduled for June 26 to get the state's budget back into balance.

Details of the increase -- exactly which fees, how much they will be raised and when -- were not available yesterday.

While the change could become effective immediately if the legislature approved it, some delay will be unavoidable while computer programs and other bureaucratic matters are addressed.

In a separate tax-related action yesterday, House and Senate leaders agreed to spend this summer and fall studying virtually every other type of tax levied in Maryland, and to recommend to the 1992 General Assembly whether any or all of them should be raised, changed or restructured.

It was Mr. Mitchell's steadfast opposition to a gas tax increase that single-handedly killed the proposal during the most recent legislative session.

Under pressure from the governor, the Senate and the state's work-starved highway contractors, Mr. Mitchell finally surrendered.

He made his announcement after a morning meeting with House leaders and two afternoon sessions with state Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer and other administration officials.

The House speaker also pledged that legislators will "consider and enact" a major revenue increase for the state's transportation program next year if, by next January, the Transportation Department presents them with a comprehensive five-year plan detailing how the money will be spent.

Mr. Mitchell said that as a result of yesterday's agreement, he was assured by Mr. Lighthizer that a freeze on awarding new highway contracts that has been in effect since November would be lifted, although exactly when was not immediately known.

He also said he was forced to give in to the demands for more money because the Schaefer administration had refused to commit to the federally financed projects, thus jeopardizing more than $300 million in federal funds specifically for Maryland projects, such as the widening of the U.S. 50 west of Annapolis and construction of a new bridge across the Severn River.

Mr. Lighthizer said there was "no question" the state could not afford to cover its share of the cost for those projects without a promise of an infusion of more cash.

But Mr. Mitchell, even after relenting, continued to dispute that claim, saying, "I still think there is money there to do this, but I'm not going to sit here until the final deadline without an assurance federal funds are saved."

General Assembly leaders also set into motion yesterday their promised summer study of tax restructuring plan originally proposed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer's tax study commission headed by Montgomery County lawyer R. Robert Linowes.

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