Business leaders uneasy over a gas tax increase; Chamber has another plan for funding roads


Howard County's business leaders want expensive new roads and interchanges, but they would rather not have the state increase the gasoline tax to pay for it, according to this year's list of General Assembly priorities from the Chamber of Commerce.

Without the higher taxes, the new roads might be impossible, chamber leaders acknowledged at the group's annual legislative breakfast yesterday at the Columbia Hilton. They have another solution in mind -- one with which several of the General Assembly's top Republicans agree.

They want to remove the state's mass transit programs from the Transportation Trust Fund. It's unfair, they say, for gasoline taxes to support both mass transit and highways. It's also unfair, Republican leaders said, to raise taxes when the state is boasting surpluses estimated at $250 million.

"We do not believe that a gas tax increase is appropriate for funding of transit operating expense increases," said Dwight Clark, an attorney who is the chamber's vice president for governmental affairs. He said, however, that building interchanges along U.S. 29 and Route 175 and widening parts of Routes 216 and 32 are the chamber's highest priorities. If a tax increase is the only way to fund those projects, then the chamber would support one, Clark said.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has called for a gas tax increase, and a panel has been appointed to examine the issue.

The chamber also wants legislation requiring convicted criminals to serve at least 50 percent of their sentences -- even if it means building more prisons -- and state budget surpluses devoted to one-time projects "that do not create future funding requirements or mandates."

The group of about 60 business leaders presented legislators a list of priorities in economic development, education, training, environment and public safety.

Attorney Thomas M. Meachum said that if longer prison sentences are recommended, the chamber should also recommend more treatment and education to combat drug and alcohol abuse.

"We ought to address a public health program. How can we help them rather than just sending them to prison?" he said.

Removing mass transit from the trust fund would free about 42 percent of the fund's $1.9 billion in annual spending, state officials say, and it would put the transit programs in the state's general budget, where costs could be trimmed. Only 35 percent of the fund is spent annually on highway projects, a spokesman said.

"It would get more scrutiny in the general fund," Del. Robert H. Kittleman, House minority leader and a Howard Republican, said after the breakfast. "State bus drivers get twice as much as those in the private sector. Eighty percent of mass transit budgets are salaries."

Howard Republican Martin G. Madden, the Senate minority leader, agreed.

"I favor looking at that formula. This is not the time to be talking about raising the gas tax," he said.

After the breakfast, state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Howard Democrat and deputy majority leader, said he disagreed. County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, attended the breakfast, but said later he didn't know enough about the issue to form an opinion.

"It's going to have to be this year or next," Kasemeyer said of the proposed gas tax increase, adding that he doesn't think mass transit is likely to be removed from the trust fund.

The state tax on gasoline -- last raised in 1992 -- is now 23.5 cents a gallon. That and Motor Vehicle Administration licensing and title transfer fees provide the roughly $2 billion the transportation fund receives and spends each year.

But state Transportation Department spokesman Jack Calahan said the trust fund has a built-in financing problem. While construction and transit system costs increase annually because of inflation, the fund's income remains flat without legislative action to increase either the tax or the fees.

Without an increase in the fund's income, "the ability to add new projects diminishes" after 2000, he said.

A 5-cent gas tax increase would add about $140 million a year.

Pub Date: 1/12/99

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