The legislation, which transportation officials say would yield $4.4 billion for new projects over the next six years, passed the House of Delegates last week and now goes to Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who introduced the bill, for his signature.
The vote came just a month after a transportation plan was approved in Virginia, a state led by a Republican governor that competes for jobs in a region with some of the nation’s worst traffic congestion.
The two plans share some features, including a new wholesale tax on gas that is intended to keep pace with the price of fuel.
Passage in Maryland also marked the latest legislative win for O’Malley in a 90-day session in which he has pushed through measures to repeal the death penalty and offer incentives to develop an offshore wind farm.
With barely a week left in the session, O’Malley also notched a victory late Friday in a House committee that had become a linchpin in his efforts to pass one of the most far-reaching legislative responses to last year’s deadly school shooting in Newtown, Conn. The governor’s bill survived challenges from Republicans and conservative Democrats, retaining an assault-weapons ban and a provision to fingerprint gun buyers. The vote sets the stage for passage before the legislature’s April 8 adjournment.
In an interview, O’Malley acknowledged that higher gas taxes would not be politically popular: “It’s not the kind of stuff people throw you bouquets for.” But he argued that funding more projects would create jobs and that the action was long overdue. He credited passage in Virginia for stiffening the spines of some lawmakers in Maryland.
“People became much more open to the need and the importance of moving forward on this when they saw our neighbors on the other side of the river were moving out ahead of us,” he said.
The Maryland Senate also passed a “lockbox” bill Friday that would make it more difficult for future General Assemblies to divert transportation funds to other programs — a strategy that has been used by governors and lawmakers from both parties to balance the state’s operating budget.
During Friday’s debate, opponents of the gas-tax bill — many who represent rural districts — protested that the plan places too heavy a burden on motorists to help pay for mass-transit projects they won’t use and that many residents can’t afford a tax increase.
“This is a regressive tax that hurts the poor,” said Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin (R-Cecil). “This is going to cause tremendous pain for everybody.”