The chairman of the Senate's budget committee today unveiled a proposal to increase state gasoline taxes that won immediate support from other members of the Senate leadership and set up a possible confrontation between House and Senate leaders this session over funding for the state's strained transportation programs.
Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, told Gov. Harry Hughes and legislative leaders at a breakfast meeting that he was introducing a bill to place a new tax on gasoline at the wholesale level that would raise $20.7 million for transportation projects in the next fiscal year.
The tax would automatically adjust upward with rising gasoline prices, but would be limited to an increase of 1 cent per gallon each year. Those increases would be added to the current 9 cent per gallon charge, which is levied at the retail level.
Hughes considered proposing such a tax last fall because of declining state funds for roads, mass transit and other transportation projects, but later decided not to ask for the increase this year, in part because House leaders opposed it.
Instead, the governor ordered the deletion of some 55 road projects from the state's six-year construction plan that were considered unlikely ever to be built.
House leaders, who today reacted coolly to Levitan's proposal, have taken the position that instead of increasing taxes this year, the state's program for transportation should be reviewed so that funding needs in the future can be clearly established.
House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore) has been guiding work on another proposal to increase fees paid by the trucks that use state roads, but that measure currently calls for the new funds to be effectively transferred to the state's general program fund to help pay for employes' pay raises and other items left out of Hughes' proposed budget.
Levitan and other Senate leaders have argued that the legislature cannot afford to wait to bolster its transportation program, and that Hughes and Cardin made a mistake in deciding to put off a gasoline tax increase.
"If we don't do it this year, it will be two or three years before we get back to it because of the elections next year," Levitan said in an interview. "Everyone agrees this is needed, and we can't afford to wait that long."
Senate leaders and some prominent House members have been saying since the General Assembly went into session three weeks ago that additional funds should be granted to transportation projects this year in spite of House opposition, but Levitan's bill represents the first concrete proposal. "There's a lot of sentiment for this, and it was just a matter of getting the ball rolling," Levitan said.
Levitan, who approved a final draft of his bill only this afternoon, was still lining up possible cosponsors today, will Senate President James Clark (D-Howard) and Majority Leader Rosalie Abrams (D-Baltimore) said they supported the tax icrease. Abrams, who also sit on the budget committee, predicted the committee would approve the proposal.
Hughes "did not reject" Levitan's proposal at the breakfast meeting and "agrees that it is something that should be explored," according to press secretary Gene Oishi.However, House leaders said yesterday there was still not substantial support for any gas tax in their Ways and Means Committee, where the truck fee increase plan has gained increasing momentum over the last month.
That measure, which is expected to be forwarded by a subcommittee to the full Ways and Means Committee by the end of the week, would place a surcharge on the quarterly fees truck pay to the state based on their gasoline usage. The fee, which subcommittee chairman Stewart Bainum (D-Montgomery) describes as an "equity surcharge" because it is designed to compensate for the damage done by trucks to Maryland roads, would range from .9 cents to 54 cents per gallon used, depending on the weight of the truck and the number of axles.
The current subcommittee proposal would raise $72 million next year, but House leaders are expected to support lowering the fees to raise only $35 million to $40 million. The new revenue would be dedicated to road and bridge maintenance under the subcommittee plan, but at the same time $40 million in revenues now given to the transportation system would be transferred to the general state program fund.
Hughes has supported the truck fee increase in concept, and Levitan said today he would also back it. He added, however, "The Senate leadership has made it clear to Ben Cardin that we're not just willing to have a truck tax if transportation funds aren't also increased."