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Md. gas tax increase faces many hurdles

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A meeting of Maryland legislative leaders and county officials ended in an unusually testy exchange Friday, revealing how difficult it could be for the General Assembly to reach agreement this year on one of its biggest pieces of unfinished business from 2012: A gas-tax increase or other revenue plan to replenish the state’s nearly bankrupt transportation trust fund.

Wicomico County Executive Richard Pollitt Jr. – incoming head of the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo) – opened the annual legislative preview noting the state’s more balanced operating budget.

“It’s not that happy days are here again … but better days are here,” Pollitt (D) said.

That, however, was about as happy as the meeting got.

After years of deep state budget shortfalls and cuts, including some that have hit counties hard, little good will appeared to exist between outspoken members of the counties’ group, which is majority Republican, and Democrats, who control both chambers of the assembly in Annapolis.

Even before it began, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) declined an invitation to attend the Friday meeting, sending instead his budget chair, Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer (D-Baltimore County).

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) then surprised county leaders – and drew grumbles from the crowd – by launching into a slide show illustrating how the state still spends more than counties do on local school operating and construction costs.

Busch ended his presentation saying lawmakers in the mostly Democratic Washington and Baltimore areas would have to ban together if a transportation package were to be approved. He showed a slide detailing how lawmakers from those areas have supported the state’s recent tax increases, while a majority of those from Maryland’s more numerous, but less populated, rural counties have opposed them.

That fault line is likely to make it impossible for MACo, typically a powerful lobbying voice in Annapolis, to take a unified position on an increase in the gas-tax or other revenue measures. Democrats say new revenue is needed to fund a backlog of transportation projects, including the so-called Purple Line, an east-west commuter line that proponents say could alleviate traffic congestion on the northern stretches of Capital Beltway.

The meeting highlighted other problems that remain, too.

Kasemeyer, chair of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, noted that Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has yet to fill a vacancy in his cabinet for transportation secretary. Kasemeyer said that in the past, gas-tax plans have only passed when a transportation secretary was around to help negotiate a deal.

And after battling over tax increases last year, Kasemeyer warned that state lawmakers are “fatigued” even before the session begins.

On the other side, Montgomery County Council member George L. Leventhal criticized Democrats for not promising to do more. Specifically, he said he was disappointed that O’Malley’s new legislative secretary, Stacy Mayer, did not use her allotted time with the group to confirm that the governor would again push for more transportation revenue.

Last year, O’Malley sought to phase in a 6 percent sales tax on gasoline, effectively raising the per-gallon price about 7 cents per year for the next three years.

Mayer said the governor’s past comments in favor of raising transportation revenue still stand and that O’Malley is still deciding whether a new bill will be part of his legislative package, due to the General Assembly on Jan. 16.

“The question is whether or not there is the will to get it passed” in the assembly, she said.

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