NOT ONLY DO THE legislatures of Maryland and Virginia have strikingly similar business before them this year, but Govs. Harry Hughes and John Dalton both have shown new willingness to talk taxes for Metro and other useful purposes around their states. Their support in these efforts is crucial, since this is the year that the state and local governments have to match federal commitments to Metro with their own establishment of "stable and reliable" sources of revenue for their share of the transit bill. The danger at this point is that the governors' support for working out tax solutions could be misinterpreted and/or squandered by disorganized, greedy delegations from this region.
Gov. Hughes says he will consider using part of the Maryland sales tax to finance Metro operating costs -- which is a switch from his position last year. He has told legislators that he might consider designating one-quarter of 1 percent of the current 5 percent tax for the Metro system. That would amount to enough to cover 75 percent of the annual operating payments of Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
In view of new estimates pointing to a sizable state surplus, the designation of sales tax money -- rather than an increase in the gasoline tax -- may prove more politically palatable. Still, neither the governor nor the legislative leaders have rejected the gasoline tax increase, nor should they. Not only are there other energy-related reasons for taxing gasoline use, but the sales-tax options could become impossibly bogged down with requirements that Washington and Baltimore subway systems make up half of their operating deficits through their fare boxes.
In Virginia, Gov. Dalton seeks -- and deserves -- legislative support for a gasoline tax increase to raise money for highway improvements and Metro subway construction. Not only is the governor proposing this important state commitment, but he is offering to do whatever is necessary in concert with the Northern Virginia lawmakers to meet the federal "stable and reliable" revenue requirement. If this means Northern Virginia's delegation also turns up united in support of a regional increase in the sales tax, the governor says he would even go along with that.
But first things first -- the gasoline tax, and the state partnership that comes with it, are most important to the entire state. Any regional sales proposal should not be considered as an alternative; and a heavy-handed push for the sales tax or both could ruin an attractive and sensible gasoline tax plan.