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  •   Rise in Gas, Sales Tax Unlikely This Year

    By Daniel LeDuc
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, January 16, 1999; Page B07

    Key Maryland lawmakers said yesterday that chances of a gas or sales tax increase this year to pay for road construction and mass transit were all but dead.

    The decision marked a sudden turnabout. Only two days earlier, on the General Assembly's opening day, some of the same legislators were talking of a need for increasing taxes to avoid a looming shortfall in Maryland's special transportation fund.

    But the state's rosy economic picture – including a $250 million budget surplus – made any talk of a tax increase a hard sell to the public this year. And yesterday, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor (D-Allegany) and Senate Budget and Taxation Chairman Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore) said more time was needed to build consensus and educate taxpayers on why more money was needed.

    "The groundwork and foundation hasn't been laid yet," Taylor said. "Once the public knows the tremendous need out there . . . then there will be support."

    Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) had opposed any gas or sales tax increase so Taylor's reluctance to go forward effectively kills the chance of any increase during the General Assembly this session.

    During this session, the legislature also will grapple with whether to raise the cigarette tax, another hard sell in a strong economy. Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) has balanced his $8.6 billion budget proposal assuming a 50-cent increase on a pack of cigarettes this year and another 50-cent increase next year.

    Cutting the governor's budget to avoid the tobacco tax increase would require lawmakers to cut popular spending programs. So, faced with unpopular proposals to increase taxes – one on tobacco and others to fund transportation needs – it appears lawmakers were only willing to tackle one of them.

    Hoffman said she wants a year-long study of Maryland's transportation needs and sources of new money to pay for highways, buses and trains. Among the potential big-ticket items to be paid for in the coming years is a replacement for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, currently pegged at a cost of $1.8 billion, with Virginia and the federal government sharing the expense with Maryland.

    "It's better to do it right," Hoffman said. "We'll get it done, but we'll do it in a way with some logic to it."

    State transportation officials have told legislators that within two years, they will be short about $200 million annually to keep their road-building efforts on track. The transportation fund, which receives most of its money from the gas tax and other motor vehicle fees, pays for road construction and mass transit systems in Washington and Baltimore.

    Money for transportation does not come from the state's general operating budget, which is enjoying the large surplus. But that extra money – even though it was not available for transportation – makes a gas or sales tax increase a hard political sell.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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