Miller tells business leaders: Higher gas tax is coming
Addressing a room packed with Maryland’s business and education leaders, the presiding officers of Maryland’s House and Senate both made a pitch for more spending on capital projects in the upcoming legislative session.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller was the most blunt about how such a plan would be funded, saying at a breakfast meeting of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce: “There’s going to be a gas tax.”
“Is it popular?” Miller asked. “No.” But, he said, “It is going to have to get done now.”
House Speaker Michael E. Busch took a slightly different approach, saying that lawmakers in Annapolis are looking at ways to fund a large scale public works program, without specifying any particular taxes that he wants raised.
“How do we come up with an aggressive funding source to improve our capital infrastructure and put the labor force to work?” Busch said. “That is what we have to go back to Annapolis and do.”
The remarks given at the Maryland Chamber of Commerce Business Policy Conference in Cambridge were largely in step with a theme set by Gov. Martin O’Malley in October, when he asked the legislature to support more taxes as a way of funding state construction jobs. The governor and both presiding officers are Democrats, though they don't always agree on policy. Busch's comments suggest that as proposals to raise the gas tax go forward in the upcoming legislative session, the bigger fight is likely to be in the House of Delegates.
“I don’t see anyone here standing in line to vote for a gas tax,” Busch said. “They are not.”
A state task force has proposed raising the gas tax by 15 cents a gallon as a means of bolstering the Transportation Trust Fund and paying for a backlog of state road repair and construction projects. Miller has previously suggested that he is likely to support an increase of less than 15 cents.
Miller said the legislature will also have to pass a constitutional amendment to protect the new funds, even though he said he thinks the move would be “bad budgeting” because “people in government need some flexibility.”
Such an amendment would have to be approved by voters on the 2012 ballot, which is also likely to contain a question about allowing illegal immigrants to have in-state tuition.
Maryland business advocacy organizations have been supportive of raising the gas tax, as long as the revenue is walled off from the rest of the state’s budget and can only be used for transportation projects. Since fiscal year 2009, the Maryland General Assembly has raided the so-called Transportation Trust Fund four times, moving roughly $218 million to other parts of the budget.
Del. Anthony O’Donnell, the House Republican leader, made clear that his caucus would not support a gas tax increase. “When people are banging on the door for a tax increase, think about the little guy,” he said, telling business leaders that consumers already are strapped and can ill afford more taxes and fees.
And Sen. Nancy Jacobs, who recently stepped down as Senate GOP leader, said: “There is something illogical about raising taxes to create jobs.”