Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. yesterday proposed devoting a portion of the state sales tax to transportation at a time when budget experts are struggling to find funding for new highways and mass transit without raising taxes.
Taylor (D-Allegany) said he will introduce legislation in the upcoming General Assembly session to devote one-tenth of 1 cent of the existing 5 percent sales tax in each of the next 10 years to pay for mass transit. Once fully in place, that would mean about $500 million a year.
"We're saying here's a piece of dedicated money you can count on for the future," Taylor said at a news conference to announce his proposals for the upcoming session. They also include expanded health insurance for the working poor, abolishment of the inheritance tax, an improved college savings program and creation of a court to oversee high-technology legal issues.
Maryland pays for its highway and mass transit needs with the gas tax of 23.5 cents a gallon. In September, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) announced that a gas tax increase would not be necessary for the next three years because the booming economy had produced a surge in tax and fee revenue to cover transportation costs for the time being.
But Taylor and other state leaders have been worried about long-term ways to pay for highways, buses and trains. State transportation experts have forecast a $250 million deficit each year in transportation spending beginning in 2004.
Dedicating a portion of the sales tax for mass transit would free gas tax revenue for highways and other transportation needs, he said. Traditionally, legislative budget experts have been reluctant to dedicate money from the sales tax to a particular need, preferring to keep the money unencumbered to meet all state budget requirements.
Taylor also proposed spending $3 million to subsidize daily passenger air service between Baltimore-Washington International Airport and regional airports in Salisbury, St. Mary's County, Hagerstown and Cumberland, Md. "You need to start looking at a commuter airplane as a bus," he said, noting that public bus systems in Maryland receive half their money from fares and the other half from state subsidies.
Daily flights would be a boon for business and tourism, Taylor said.
To grapple with the legal issues arising from high technology, Taylor is pushing the creation of a technology court.
While the idea is in the preliminary stages, Taylor said the court would be a division of Circuit Court similar to the Division of Family Law. It would handle cases related to computer crimes, issues of privacy and taxation, and copyright disputes over software.
A spokeswoman at the Williamsburg, Va.-based National Center for State Courts said she knew of no other state establishing such a system, though some states have designated specific judges to handle high-tech business issues because of the expertise required by computer technology.
Taylor also wants to expand health care with the creation of a new fund to offer basic health insurance for the working poor who aren't eligible for Medicaid but can't afford insurance. People would pay for the insurance on a sliding scale based on income.
He also said he wants to expand a health insurance program for children of the working poor to include 12,000 additional youngsters. Two years ago, the legislature increased the eligibility level for those children, bringing 60,000 new children into the program, which is paid for with state and federal money.