The Maryland Senate's budget panel narrowly approved a new state gasoline tax tonight that would increase the current nine-cent-per-gallon levy by one cent a gallon beginning in July.
The 7-to-5 vote by the Budget and Taxation Committee was a modest victory for Gov. Harry Hughes and the Senate leadership, which spent the weekend modifying provisions of the tax bill to suit the swing vote on the committee, Senate Minority Leader Edward Mason (R-Cumberland).
In approving the tax increase, however, the committee members once again declared that they oppose Hughes' intention to use the tax increase to help fund a pay raise for state employes this year. "There is no way you are going to get an employes' pay raise this year out of this tax," said committee chairman Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery). "The votes are just not there for that."
Levitan's remark prompted an emotional statement from Sen. Tommy Broadwater (D-Prince George's), who accused the committee members of "disregarding the employes' pay raise" by limiting the tax increase to one cent a year, as opposed to the two cents Hughes said was needed. But committee members responded that they would not take the blame for any failure of employes to get a raise.
"It's the governor who didn't provide for the employes' pay raise in the budget, not us," said Sen. John Cade (R-Anne Arundel).
Hughes and Senate leaders won the deciding vote of Mason for the tax by adding a provision to the bill that would require all state transit systems -- and in particular the state-owned Baltimore city bus and rail operation -- to meet 50 percent of their expenses through fare collections. The provision is expected to face stiff opposition if the gasoline tax reaches the House of Delegates.
Earlier today, a measure supporters said would bar the "rent-a-politician syndrome" among cable television companies in the quest for public franchises was rejected by the House.
With a constitutional majority of 71 needed for passage, the vote was 54 in favor to 53 against, with 34 delegates, including five legislators who have interests in cable firms, abstaining or not voing.
Del. Luiz Simmons (D-Montgomery), the bill's sponsor, blamed its defeat on "an awful lot of abstentions" he ascribed in part to a feeling in the legislature that "the public is not interested in ethics anymore."
Delegates in debate today fairly bristled at the notion enunciated in the measure that they should be precluded from lobbying on behalf of cable if they or family members or even law partners were hired or had an interest in such firms. The lawmakers also expressed outrage at the very idea that they could, under any circumstances, be bought.
"If anyone thinks he can rent this politician, he's wrong," thundered Del. Charles E. Smit (D-Frederick). "I'm tired of hearing that. A lot of honorable people serve in this House. To suggest otherwise is totally wrong. You hear that type of slander elsewhere. You don't have to hear it on the House floor."