With the cost of gasoline inching ever upward, this certainly is a lousy time to be raising taxes on gasoline. Which helps explain why both state lawmakers and most of the general public have greeted Gov.Martin O'Malley's proposal to apply the sales tax to gasoline with all the enthusiasm they'd muster for greeting a dead skunk on their front doorstep.
Still, one could also argue that this is the right time to raise taxes on gasoline.
Maryland's transportation system is in serious need of improvements — some $800 million a year's worth of improvements, according to one commission. And the fund designated to pay for those improvements, the state's Transportation Trust Fund, is running dry, tapped by O'Malley and others during the past few economically depressed years to cover non-transportation projects. More gas tax money would go a long way to replenishing that fund.
That's not to say the governor's proposal couldn't use some tweaking. There's a lot not to like about it, beginning with the above-mentioned fact that it was O'Malley, in large part, who helped get the state into this mess by raiding the trust fund. For that reason, his proposal needs stronger safeguards against such raiding in the future.
We also are not wild about applying the sales tax to gas. Why not simply raise the state tax on gas, which is 23.5 cents per gallon and has not been changed in 20 years, despite rising gas prices?
In addition, O'Malley's gas tax idea suffers from the fact that it's viewed as part of a package of dramatic, dubious, some might say frightening tax and/or spending proposals coming from the governor, including doubling the so-called "flush tax" and shifting the burden of paying for teacher pensions from the state to the counties. Taken as a whole, the changes seem overwhelming.
But taken on its own, the idea of raising taxes on gasoline makes perfect sense. If you need money to improve your transportation system — and the worsening traffic in the Baltimore-Washington area demands a better system — there is no better way to raise that money than by taxing the folks who use that transportation system. It's as simple as that.
Howard County's Democratic lawmakers, typically supportive of O'Malley, are as wary of this proposal as the rest of the state. But as one such lawmaker, Del. Frank Turner of Columbia, noted, any gas tax is "not an easy decision when you see gasoline going up 13 cents in a week. But to do nothing is also irresponsible."
Amen. Do something. We have no other choice.