OCEAN CITY — Gubernatorial candidates of both parties promised city and town officials that they would restore local road repair money cut from the state budget by the O'Malley administration.
Appearing at the annual convention of the Maryland Municipal League two weeks before the June 24 primary, Democrat Anthony G. Brown and four Republican candidates pledged full restoration of the transportation spending known as "highway user revenue."
That spending was cut back as much as 95 percent by Gov. Martin O'Malley during the recession as the governor chose to shield other spending priorities from deep cuts. Getting that money back is perhaps the No. 1 cause of mayors and city councils across the state.
Before the recession, municipalities together received about $45 million each year, said Scott Hancock, executive director of the league. Since then, about 50 percent of it has been restored, he said.
Brown, the lieutenant governor and the front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination, did not apologize for the administration's actions, saying that "no program in state government has been spared the ax."
However, Brown said, last year's legislation increasing Maryland's gas tax has given the state the resources to return to the pre-recession levels of the fiscal 2008 budget. He promised to go back to the funding formula used at that time rather than the one-time grant approach used in the current and coming year's budgets.
"You should not have to rely on a grant," Brown told the municipal officials.
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler sidestepped the question and gave a version of his stump speech. Del. Heather R. Mizeur, the third Democrat in the race, had a scheduling conflict and did not attend.
While all four candidates in the Republican field have called for cuts in state spending, each matched Brown's pledge to restore the road funding.
"I will totally restore the highway user revenue to the 2008 levels," said Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel County.
Larry Hogan, who worked in the administration of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., pledged that he would not turn to the Transportation Trust Fund to balance the state budget — as Ehrlich and O'Malley did in times of economic stress.
"We're going to protect the trust funds. They've become lack-of-trust funds," he said.
The other GOP candidates for governor, Harford County Executive David R. Craig and Charles County business executive Charles Lollar, concurred.
"You're going to get it back because you deserve to have it back," said Craig. He said his county lost $14 million in money to fix local roads as a result of the state cutbacks.
Before the recession, the state followed a formula under which 30 percent of the Transportation Trust Fund, which gets its money from the gas tax and other transportation fees, was distributed to local governments. Baltimore, the only jurisdiction that maintains state highways within its borders, got more.
As the recession eased, the governor and the General Assembly began to restore some of the highway user revenues they had cut, mostly as one-time budget payments and not according to a predictable formula.
Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., the Anne Arundel County Democrat who chairs the transportation budget subcommittee, said the cuts to local highway aid were an unfortunate but justifiable response to the recession. "We also have to protect and support the priorities of the state as well, and education is the top priority," he said.
DeGrange said he'd like to get away from the practice of relying on annual grants to municipalities and return to a more generous formula for distributing local highway aid, but not necessarily the former 30 percent.
"I don't see that in the next few years anyway," he said.