No tax rise seen to avert MTA cuts

The Baltimore Sun

A gallon of gas costs less than $2, and Maryland's gasoline tax hasn't been raised for 15 years.

But don't look for Howard County's State House delegation to lead the charge in Annapolis for a tax increase to prevent big cuts to commuter transit and highway projects.

If the proposed Mass Transit Administration cuts become reality Jan. 12, scores of people who responded to $4-a-gallon gas by heeding the government's call to use mass transit will feel as though they've been thrown under a bus - if there is one.

To counterbalance declining revenue, state officials are considering cutting $1 billion from transportation projects now and maybe twice that much later. The reductions would eliminate commuter bus service from Columbia to Baltimore, including one route serving U.S. 1, and result in fewer trips to Silver Spring and Washington, as well as cuts to MARC train service. Only the route from Long Gate Shopping Center to Baltimore would remain.

At an MTA hearing in Columbia this month, riders said they are willing to pay higher fares to cover the cost of the bus service, and they urged consideration of new ways to finance mass transit. In a Nov. 24 letter to Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari, the county's Democratic elected officials urged consideration of fare increases to limit the losses.

Republican Dels. Gail H. Bates and Warren E. Miller and state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman argue that taxing rural motorists' gasoline purchases to support mass transit isn't fair. Bates said mass transit should pay for itself, and Kittleman said he has no objection to higher bus fares.

Miller noted that the state's cuts to highway projects in the western county drew no delegation letters of protest, though the widening of Route 32 has been a priority there. That project is now delayed, he and Bates said.

"I think gas tax revenues should be used for roads," Kittleman said. Miller agreed.

"I think that mass transit has bled off desperately needed road money," he said.

Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Democrat, disagrees.

"Those of us who rarely use public transit, like me, have some obligation to subsidize people who are getting off the roads," she said. "I'm very comfortable subsidizing public transportation."

She is not advocating raising the gas tax, though.

For now, the gasoline tax and vehicle titling fees are the main sources of transportation funding in Maryland, and revenues from both are declining rapidly amid the economic slump.

State legislators didn't raise the tax in last year's special session to address a revenue shortfall, deciding to divert half the higher revenue from a sales tax increase to transportation instead. Now gas prices are down, but the politicians say they are finished raising taxes.

"I haven't found anybody who has any will to raise taxes," said Del. Frank S. Turner, a Democrat who serves on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.

A clutch of Howard elected officials attended the MTA hearing in Owen Brown to strongly oppose plans to cut bus service.

"What gets me is that it flies in the face of what the state, county and our country is trying to do," Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat and Senate majority leader, told the state hearing examiner. "You'll lose the trust of the people [who ride transit]."

But only County Council member Mary Kay Sigaty raised the issue of the gas tax at the hearing. Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who did not attend, later agreed it should be looked at. Bobo said she would like to see consideration of a suspension of work on the multibillion-dollar Intercounty Connector highway in Montgomery County to save money.

"I am a lonely voice, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't be speaking about it" Sigaty said the day after the hearing.

Sigaty said public transit is the best hope for controlling air pollution, traffic congestion and saving energy. Low gas prices and reductions in bus service reinforce the use of private vehicles and all the ills the nation is trying to fix, she said.

Taxes can seem like a burden, but sometimes they can offer a benefit, too, she said, noting that high gasoline taxes in Europe have kept traffic under control and allowed people to get around on first-class mass transit systems.

"Taxes are quite expensive. I get it, but that's always looked on as a bad thing. I think if it would move us to a priority that we agree is something essential," maybe it's not so bad, she said.

"It really comes to what are our priorities," she said.

Sen. James N. Robey, a Democrat who as county executive in 2003 raised the county's income tax rate 30 percent, also said he is not considering a change in the gas tax.

"People are fed up with taxes right now," Robey said.

Dels. James E. Malone Jr. and Steven J. DeBoy, both Democrats who represent parts of Elkridge, are adamantly opposed to raising the gas tax.

"My constituents don't want it, and I don't want it," Malone declared. "The average person in my district just can't afford a lot."

Guy Guzzone, a Democrat who chairs the county's House delegation, said he won't support new taxes either.

"You've got to put it in the context of the entire economy," he said. "We can't push it. We shouldn't push it onto the backs of all taxpayers."

The county's three Republican legislators find themselves with the majority on the tax issue, at least this year. And there could be room for such compromise in the future.

"I would much rather see us find a dedicated funding source for mass transit," said Miller - a sentiment also expressed by several transit riders at the MTA hearings.

Miller said he believes that today's low gas prices won't last, while raising gas taxes could hurt Maryland retailers near the state's borders.

Bates said she suspects the proposed transit cuts were made severe to help build support for a tax increase - a notion that Democrats scoff at. She thinks the MTA likely will back off.

"This is all sound and fury to get people stirred up," Bates said. "We're not buying."

Sigaty new chairwoman

The County Council gets a new chairwoman tomorrow night, and all five members, along with County Executive Ken Ulman, get annual automatic pay increases, starting Tuesday morning.

Council Vice Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty is slated to take over the council's top spot for the next year, as Courtney Watson steps down.

Based on the 4.9 percent increase in the area Consumer Price Index, Ulman's annual pay is to rise from $151,263 to $158,675. Council members' pay will go from $50,421 to $52,892, with the chairwoman getting an extra $1,000. That means Sigaty will get $53,892.

Watson's pay, meanwhile will rise $1,471 since she loses the chairwoman's extra pay. By comparison, county teachers, police and firefighters got 5 percent pay increases this year, while other county employees got 3 percent.

The formula for the raises is based on recommendations of a citizens committee and were approved by the last council before the November 2006 elections.

Sign-waving

Sponsors of a county bill that would ban soliciting money, selling items and advertising in the right-of-way of state roads in the county agreed to amend the bill to safeguard political sign-waving, a right protected under the Constitution, according to an opinion from the Maryland attorney general's office.

An angry crowd of free-speech advocates, many Republicans, showed up at a Howard General Assembly delegation hearing Tuesday night to oppose that part of the bill. However, several speakers at the session at school board headquarters agreed that people soliciting at intersections can pose a safety hazard.

Guzzone, the House delegation chairman and one of three District 13 Democrats who sponsored the bill to add state roadways to a county ban on soliciting along local roads, said he recognized the constitutional issue and that Democrats would amend the bill.

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