By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett yesterday called for an increase in Maryland's gas tax to help fund road and mass transit projects he said would not be possible without a sustained way to pay for them.
The suggestion by the new leader of the state's largest jurisdiction to raise the 23.5-cent tax got a tepid response from Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley (D), who sized it up as an "interesting proposal," and state Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller (D-Calvert), who said it could be a tough sell in the General Assembly.
Leggett's comments came during a speech at the annual legislative breakfast of the Committee for Montgomery, a group of community leaders. He also publicly supported County Council President Marilyn Praisner's initiative, announced last week, to put dozens of large new developments on hold until the county revisits its approach to managing growth.
In a wide-ranging interview afterward, Leggett (D) talked for the first time about how he would convert campaign rhetoric into specific policies. He pledged to provide more scrutiny of the school system's budget, consider reorganizing the county's top finance and public safety jobs, and adopt O'Malley's nationally recognized CitiStat program from Baltimore to improve local government services.
Leggett acknowledged the political risk of advocating an unpopular increase in the gas tax, which has not been raised since 1992 and is already higher than rates in the District and Virginia. During the Democratic primary to fill the position that was held by Douglas M. Duncan (D), Steven A. Silverman tried to use Leggett's support for a double-digit gas tax increase against him in television commercials. Leggett backed off the size of the increase but not the concept.
"I believed it then, and I believe it now," Leggett said yesterday. "We need to increase the gasoline tax."
His pronouncement was met by the sound of clinking teacups in a banquet hall filled with about 600 elected officials and nonprofit and business leaders. But he has the backing of several members of the County Council.
Concern over traffic and growth ranked higher in Montgomery than anywhere else in the state in a Washington Post poll conducted this summer.
Today, Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) is expected to urge the council to support an unspecified increase, which he called smart "energy, environmental and transportation policy." Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) said she, too, would support an increase to avoid putting the governor "in the situation of having to raid the transportation trust fund."
For every penny increase in the gas tax, $30 million to $35 million in revenue would go into the fund that pays for transportation projects throughout Maryland. During the recession of the early 1990s, the General Assembly increased the tax rate by 5 cents to the current rate.
Leggett said that the size of a potential increase "is open to debate" but that it could be coupled with a bump in the vehicle registration fee, which outgoing Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) nearly doubled in 2004.
Miller, the Senate president, said an increase in the gas tax has "been needed for some time, but I'm not certain the political will is there."
"It would have to be a sales job by the governor in terms of explaining what the needs of the state are," he said, including assurances that rural Maryland -- not just Montgomery and the Washington suburbs -- would benefit.
O'Malley arrived at the Bethesda North Conference Center more than 45 minutes late yesterday after getting stuck in rush-hour traffic. He expressed support for completing the $2.4 billion intercounty connector "on time" and for the proposed Purple Line that would link Metro's Bethesda and New Carrollton stations.
On Leggett's gas tax proposal, O'Malley was noncommittal. "It's certainly an interesting proposal, and we'll be looking at every reasonable proposal in the months ahead," he said afterward. "More importantly, I think we need to bring people together around a statewide vision for transportation."
Beyond the gas tax, Leggett emphasized his commitment to slow the pace of development in the county. He said he would work with the council to develop new standards for determining whether a community has the road and school capacity to handle additional growth.
He said he supports the temporary moratorium that Praisner (D-Eastern County) proposed last week. It would last through August.
In discussions with candidates to complete his administration, Leggett's team has stressed his interest in improving customer service. Leggett said he will join the county's inspector general later this week to create a hotline for employees and residents to report government fraud and waste. Also, Leggett will soon announce a task force that will try to adapt a version of the CitiStat program, which uses statistics to measure government performance, for Montgomery.
School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast will present his budget blueprint tomorrow, and Leggett said he intends to "look at it much more carefully" than he said Duncan and the council have in recent years. With school funding accounting for about half the county's overall budget, Leggett said, "it should withstand that kind of analysis, and if they can't, then something is wrong."