Mitchell retrenches


It was inevitable that state lawmakers would end up with no option but to increase motor vehicle fees. The facts have been indisputable since the 1991 session convened: The transportation fund is eroding and highways and bridges are crumbling.

Chief among the reasons is that federal highway money has dwindled while the Motor Vehicle Administration's services and costs increased. To make things worse, revenues from fees for licenses, titles and tags have remained stable. As a result, fees amounted to only 33 percent of the MVA's budget last year, compared to 84 percent in 1955.

Still, the no-new-taxes tenor of the 1991 session, along with the opposition of House Speaker Clay Mitchell, prevented a proposed package of fee increases from passing. Now, the threat of losing federal funds has given the House leader a swift kick in the pants. If Maryland doesn't come up with $60 million in matching funds, it stands to lose $312 million in federal highway money.

That -- along with mounting political pressure from the governor and from lawmakers who found out which projects in their districts might be canceled -- was enough to force Mitchell's hand. He agreed, albeit reluctantly, to support motor vehicle fee increases to raise $40 million for the state in the special session on June 26 -- and to consider higher gas taxes later on. Mitchell's retrenchment virtually assures passage of fee hikes this month.

Nickel-and-diming Marylanders to balance the budget is hardly the most efficient way to run government. Even so, in the Alice in Wonderland climate created by Ronald Reagan and sustained by George Bush, user fees (never say the T-word) are about the only way politicians can raise revenues without being haunted in the next election by accusations of raising taxes.

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