Schaefer criticizes governor on gas tax

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer intensified his criticism of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s reluctance to raise the state's gasoline tax yesterday -- accusing his administration of avoiding the issue of how to pay for better roads.

Schaefer's message, prompted by public statements last week in which Ehrlich expressed reluctance to raise the tax, came at a meeting of the Board of Public Works.

The message itself was not entirely new. Schaefer has publicly supported a 10-cent increase in the gasoline tax for months, and he raised the issue at a board meeting in July.

The difference was in how the Democratic comptroller, whose self-imposed six-month moratorium on criticizing Ehrlich expired in July, delivered the message.

Pausing in his opening statement at the meeting, Schaefer turned to face Ehrlich -- as the comptroller frequently would do when he wanted to deliver a particularly acerbic remark to Parris N. Glendening, who as governor also served on the three-member board.

Schaefer bluntly told Ehrlich that he needs to seek an increase of the gasoline tax, which is 23.5 cents a gallon.

"Our roads are in terrible condition as a result of eight years of neglect," Schaefer said, casting another barb at Ehrlich's predecessor, who did not raise the levy during his two terms.

Schaefer rejected reservations expressed by Ehrlich administration officials about supporting a gas tax increase when prices at the pump are relatively high.

"It'll be another year and another year and another year," Schaefer said.

The governor made no public reply to the comptroller, who veered off to another topic.

The governor has not ruled out a gas tax increase -- as he has with the state sales and income taxes. Replenishing the depleted Transportation Trust Fund, to which the gas tax is dedicated, has considerable support among some.

However, in recent weeks Ehrlich and his aides have been signaling their reluctance to raise the tax -- a move that would face opposition from Republicans in the General Assembly.

"I'm not terribly enthused about a gas tax increase," Ehrlich told reporters last week.

Yesterday, Ehrlich press secretary Greg Massoni said any decision would be made after a report is issued by a panel led by former state Transportation Secretary William K. Hellman.

An increase is "not off the table, but the governor is not disposed to doing it with the price of gasoline today," Massoni said.

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell said the idea of raising the gas tax is a "nonstarter" among GOP legislators.

"We feel the problem has been overspending during the previous administration," the Southern Maryland lawmaker said. "The first remedy should not be to pick the pockets of the hard-working families of Maryland."

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