When it comes to higher gas taxes, most Maryland businesses agree on one thing: They want a guarantee that the money designated for highway revenues will go to roads and bridges. But when the rubber met the road in the Maryland House of Delegates, some major business organizations gave away the key to the lockbox.
The Maryland business community has been deeply divided on a gas tax increase. Paving contractors, concrete and asphalt companies, engineering firms and other businesses that depend on highway construction have been starving for lack of state transportation funds. They know that over $1 billion of highway user revenues has been diverted from the Transportation Trust Fund to the state's General Fund since 2003, but the only solution they see to their plight is higher fuel taxes. Opposed are service station dealers, retailers, restaurants, taxi cab operators and the many small businesses that will have to raise their prices as the increased cost of gasoline ripples through the economy.
The one common denominator that unites all businesses is the desire to guarantee that highway revenues actually are used for highway construction and maintenance. And most recognize that only an amendment to the state constitution ensures that the governor and legislature cannot divert the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) to other purposes. Anything short of a constitutional amendment cannot prevent a future legislature from raiding the fund.
Over 91 percent of Maryland commuters use automobiles and roads, but the 2014 budget proposes to use only 27 percent of the money in the TTF for the State Highway Administration, versus 46 percent proposed for mass transit. Big transit projects, like the Red Line and the Purple Line, are slated to consume billions in gas tax revenues. For rural areas that do not even have access to transit, this is an especially bad bargain. Many business leaders saw the desire in Annapolis for a gas tax increase as a rare opportunity to compel more transportation money to go into road and bridge construction and maintenance, in return for business support.
The desire of Annapolis political leaders to pass a very unpopular gas tax increase provided the business community unique leverage to push for both a constitutional amendment to protect the TTF and a fairer distribution of tax revenues. In addition, in the year before an election, many legislators are eager for business support and cover for a politically risky vote.
Unfortunately, leading Maryland business organizations supported Gov. Martin O'Malley's bill, as introduced, forfeiting valuable leverage to achieve the goals sought by most of their members. By embracing future automatic tax increases tied to the Consumer Price Index and imposed by the comptroller, they also forfeited legislative accountability and responsiveness. Legislators will no longer have to consider, justify or cast a vote for higher transportation revenues. They will have no need to listen to future pleas from the business community for a "lockbox" on the TTF or for a fair share of the funds to highway construction and maintenance.
The fake "feel good" lockbox protecting the TTF in the House bill can be raided with merely a three-fifths vote of the full standing committees (most likely 14 House votes and seven Senate votes). And as we have seen this session, legislative leadership simply moves members around to get compliant committee members who will do their bidding.
A divided business community must share responsibility if Maryland consumers are stuck with a big gas tax increase unaccountably generating new revenue year after year, which will continue to go largely for mass transit and for a Trust Fund that no one can trust.
Ellen Sauerbrey, chairman of Maryland Business for Responsive Government, is a former minority leader of the Maryland House of Delegates. Her email is email@example.com.