By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 10, 2009
Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. told a gathering of county leaders yesterday that he thinks the state should allow universities to raise tuition and should increase the gas tax as it looks to close a growing budget shortfall.
He acknowledged that raising the gas tax will probably be politically untenable -- House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) told the same group yesterday that the General Assembly has "no appetite" for increasing taxes -- but said that without new revenue, there will be no state money for transportation priorities, including the construction of the Purple Line, a proposed mass-transit link between Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Miller (D-Calvert) and Busch addressed the annual winter meeting of the Maryland Association of Counties just days before the start of the 90-day legislative session next week. They pledged cooperation with the local leaders as they work to close a projected $1.9 billion budget shortfall but offered few specifics about programs that might receive cuts.
Allowing universities to raise tuition could ease pressure on the state's budget for higher education. State leaders have frozen tuition for the past three years in an effort to make college more affordable, but Miller said this might be the year to increase it.
"Hopefully, we'll find a way to work a compromise so universities can raise tuition and we won't have to continue to subsidize higher education as we have for the past three years," he said.
In an interview after his public remarks, Busch said tuition increases might be necessary at the University of Maryland so the research institution can continue to attract top faculty, but he said the state might want to look differently at other colleges in the university system.
Gov. Martin O'Malley's spokeswoman, Christine N. Hansen, said the governor has not finalized his budget plans, including his proposals on higher education.
Miller has urged a gas tax before, including one effort that failed two years ago. He said yesterday that overcoming the legislature's distaste for the idea would probably take leadership from the governor but that O'Malley (D) has been cool to the idea.
"There's got to be an increase in the transportation trust fund somewhere, and there's got to be a way we can find people with the political will to make it happen," he told the group.
Miller and Busch spoke to county leaders on a panel that also included a top O'Malley aide and House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert).
They greeted local leaders gloomy over the prospect of massive cuts to state aid on top of declining local tax revenue, which has created shortfalls in county budgets similar to what the state is experiencing.
Association Executive Director Michael Sanderson noted the conference opened Wednesday -- a rainy day with gray skies above and darker clouds visible in the distance. "That was the perfect setting for this meeting," he said.
The local leaders are particularly fearful about proposals to shift a portion of the $600 million cost of teacher pensions from the state to counties. Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said such a move would "bankrupt" Prince George's.
"The idea of just shifting money to counties that are hurting without resources, it's a fairness issue," he said. "We want to make certain the process is fair."