When the General Assembly last year approved a series of phased-in increases in the state gas tax, there was a spoonful of sugar to help this dose of medicine go down. The legislature also approved a constitutional amendment to make it much harder — but not impossible — for governors to dip into the state Transportation Trust Fund to balance their budgets.
That amendment is now on the state ballot as Question 1, and is backed by both gubernatorial candidates, as well as by a coalition of business groups, chambers of commerce and others concerned with transportation, such as the AAA. We strongly urge a vote for it, and for Question 2, which would make a useful change in the state constitution — one that has some bearing on Anne Arundel County's recent history.
Established by state law in 1971, the multibillion-dollar Transportation Trust Fund is fed by the state's gas taxes and vehicle licensing and registration fees, It is supposed to be used solely to meet Maryland's transportation needs. But for at least 30 years billions have been borrowed from it to meet other needs and to keep the state budget in balance — and Gov. Martin O'Malley, while trying to cope with the recession, has resorted to this strategy a lot.
Most of the money taken out of the fund has been repaid. But not all of it. And the unpredictable fluctuations have impaired this state's long-term efforts to build up its transportation infrastructure and have been especially hard on local governments, which are supposed to get a slice of the money.
If voters approve Question 1, the trust fund will be anchored in the state constitution, not just state law, and the governor won't be able to grab from it for nontransportation purposes, unless he declares a fiscal emergency and gets approval from three-fifths of both houses of the legislature. This is a good deal less than a "lockbox," but it would still be a major improvement.
Approval of Question 2 would change the constitution to allow charter government counties — like Anne Arundel — to hold special elections if the post of county executive becomes vacant. The measure would also exempt such elections from the state requirement that balloting take place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, and allow those elections to be held by mail.
The Anne Arundel County Council did well when it appointed Laura Neuman to fill the office left vacant by the resignation of John Leopold. But the voters ought to be the ones making such decisions. And in any case, charter counties should have the right to decide this matter themselves — which is what Question 2 would give them.
We urge county residents to vote for Questions 1 and 2.