Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele ditched his state-issued SUV yesterday and walked to an Annapolis Exxon station to pitch a plan to suspend the federal gasoline tax and beef up renewable fuel research, addressing what is fast becoming the hottest issue in Maryland's U.S. Senate race.
"There are a lot of families out there ... adding up their gas costs and rearranging their budgets," said Steele, a Republican running for Congress, standing next to pumps containing gas priced at $3.06 a gallon. "Just fueling up takes what little they have in disposable income. Everyone is feeling the pinch."
With Marylanders facing sticker shock at the pump and in their electric bills, nearly all the candidates to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes are offering ideas to reduce energy prices, with solutions ranging from encouraging the development of alternative fuels to nationalizing America's oil fields.
Candidates from both parties have used the issue to differentiate themselves from the Bush administration and the Republican-led Congress, which have floundered on how to deal with a major pocketbook worry for voters and are at a low point in opinion polls. Candidates said they're finding that audiences are eager to hear ideas for long-term solutions, and they aren't hearing them on the national level.
"There seems to be a lot of pressure now with the gas prices up," said Joshua B. Rales, a Montgomery County businessman running in the Democratic primary. He released a 23-page energy plan last week that included an increase in federal fuel economy standards. "We've got to stop dithering, and we need to go to work on this. ... We need to have a strategy."
The issue isn't strictly partisan - Steele has much in common with some Democrats on energy policy - but the two parties have nonetheless attacked front-runners from the other side for offering insufficient leadership.
Maryland Republican Party Chairman John Kane issued a statement yesterday claiming that Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat running for Senate, has made "numerous votes against energy independence."
"Not only has lifetime politician Ben Cardin voted to increase gas taxes multiple times, but he has also voted against a measure to increase the use of renewable fuels in gasoline, which would work to make our nation less dependent on foreign sources of oil," Kane said in the statement.
By early afternoon, state Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman had unleashed a broadside of his own, saying Steele "will take his cues from Bush and the Republican Senate leaders who won't take on price gouging, a windfall profits tax, and rolling back subsidies to the most profitable industry in the history of America."
Cardin's campaign said in an e-mail yesterday that the congressman has voted repeatedly to back development of alternative energy sources while opposing Bush administration plans to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. The campaign said Cardin has voted for higher fuel efficiency standards and is working to stop price gouging and to curb windfall profits by oil companies.
"It's wrong that big oil companies are posting record profits while Marylanders are paying record prices at the pump," Cardin said in a statement. "I believe we need a new energy policy in America. In Congress I'm standing up to the Bush Administration so that we can end price-gouging at the pump and move America closer to energy independence."
Steele said yesterday that the issue hit home for him when he sat down recently to figure out how much his wife and 16-year-old son spend on gas for their family vehicles. The tab came to $600 in a month.
He called on President Bush to suspend the federal gas tax of 18 cents a gallon - 24 cents for diesel - for 120 days, a proposal he said would cost about $9 billion. In the long term, Steele said, he wants the federal government to double its research budget for renewable fuels, to increase gas mileage standards and to use tax credits to encourage greater production and use of alternative fuel and hybrid vehicles.
Former congressman and NAACP head Kweisi Mfume said he thinks the federal and state gas taxes should be suspended during the summer.
"Together, that's a huge relief for consumers who rely, particularly in the summer months, on the availability and cost of gasoline to be reasonable," he said.
Mfume said he wants to see more emphasis on conservation, fuel economy standards of at least 40 miles per gallon and a serious congressional investigation of price gouging.
Rales called for elimination of import tariffs on ethanol, increasing fuel economy standards, encouraging governments to convert their fleets to low-emission vehicles and do more research into alternative fuels.
"We're in a position here where we can't control our own future, and now the chickens are coming home to roost with the gas prices," Rales said.
A. Robert Kaufman, a socialist running in the Democratic primary, said the quickest path to energy independence is for the U.S. to nationalize its energy industry. As it is, the giant oil companies have no incentive to invest in alternative fuels, but a nationalized energy industry would, Kaufman said.
"The monopolies have the consumers in a vise grip, and the only way to really get out of that is just to take control away from them and democratize it," Kaufman said.
Steele said he has sought to take some control of his energy consumption. Rather than ride around all the time in a state-owned Chevrolet Suburban with taxpayer-provided gasoline, Steele said he has talked to his security detail about using a police cruiser instead when he's traveling alone or with an aide.
"The only reason I have that car, really, is I have a son who's 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds," said Steele, who's nearly that big himself. "And I've got my other son, so when all of us go somewhere, we need the space."