It is a tradition in Maryland politics: When the governor signs a bill into law, especially in an election year, the state's lawmakers jostle for position behind him while he signs and the photographers snap away.
Today, as Gov. Harry Hughes signed the state's new gas tax, the politicians were out in force but, as Del. Gerard F. Devlin (D-Prince George's) joked, the question was, "were they trying to get IN the picture or OUT of the picture."
It is an election year and, even though Hughes took pains to avoid using the word tax, the legislation is just that. It increases the gasoline tax by 2 cents a gallon on June 1 (to 11 cents), another 2 1/2 cents a gallon a year later and in succeeding years calls for variable, automatic increases, depending upon the wholesale price of gasoline.
Few politicians want to be associated with a new tax when they go out to face the electorate. So the literature handed out by Hughes' staff today made no mention of the tax. The bill was referred to only as a "transportation funding measure," and Hughes pointed out that 62 highway and bridge improvements would be funded by the bill, 41 of them highway resurfacing.
He even went to a chart to show where the work would be done, pointing at various projects while cleverly avoiding the use of a pen, remembering the recent embarrassment of another politician (President Reagan) who ran out of ink in a similar situation.
"Without this legislation we could have resurfaced less than 40 miles of state highways over the next year," Hughes said. "The new revenues alone will now allow us to resurface an additional 120 miles of highways in all areas of the state."
Less than a mile away, in his own office, Hughes' likely Republican opponent, Anne Arundel County Executive Robert A. Pascal, said, "If the roads in this state need work, people should know the person most responsible for them the last 10 years, first as transportation secretary, then as governor, is Harry Hughes.
"For almost three years he said we didn't need a tax. Now he says we need a 50 percent increase in two years. Seems to me we should have been adding a penny each year for several years now. That would have saved a lot of money because the work would have been done earlier and cheaper," Pascal said.
The additional tax (Hughes did not use the word) will generate more than $42 million for highway and bridge improvements in the next year, Hughes said.
Hughes also pointed out that the bill would create work for 1,000 people during the next year. When someone asked if, in his campaign travels around the state he heard more complaints about potholes or the new tax, Hughes said, "I get more comments about unemployment."
As Hughes spoke, Sen. Edward J. Mason (R-Allegheny), who provided the key minority vote on the tax and who helped draft the compromise that finally passed, stood in the back of the room with his arms folded.
"I just came to see how big a deal he made of this," Mason said. "See how much credit he took."
Hughes credited most of the politicians in the room with helping to pass the bill, including Mason.
As Hughes spoke, Del. Robin Ficker (R-Montgomery), the most publicity-conscious member of the legislature, circulated among reporters, asking if they would like an opposing viewpoint from someone who was against its passage.
Then, as Hughes reached for his pen, Ficker hustled into position behind him, to get into the picture.