Mayor, county executives back gas tax hike
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and three of Maryland's county executives told a House committee today that they support an increase in the state's 23.5-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax if it is coupled with a restoration of state road repair money to their jurisdictions and a "firewall" to protect the Transportation Trust Fund from being used to balance the state's budget.
Rawlings-Blake joined County Executives Ken Ulman of Howard County, Ike Leggett of Montgomery County and Rushern Baker of Prince George's County in endorsing a 10-cent-a-gallon increase in the tax along with a constitutional amendment that would protect te trust fund from the type of "raids" that have been used in recent years to close shortfalls in the general fund.
Rawlings-Blake said the city is stretched to the breaking point on road and bridge projects. "When it comes to funding for transportation, we are running on empty," the mayor said.
The mayor and all three county executives are Democrats.
Like the leaders of Maryland's other 19 jurisdictions, the mayor and county executives are grappling with severe cutbacks in the amount of local highway money the state sends to local governments each year. Baltimore's highway aid has been cut nearly in half, while the counties have lost about 97 percent of their highway money over the past two years.
The four local leaders testified Tuesday in the hope of averting the third straight years of deep cuts envisioned in the budget Gov. Martin O"Malley sent to the General Assembly.
General Assembly fiscal leaders have signaled that they would consider raising the gas tax, which has not increased since 1992, if the leaders of county governments would take the lead in calling for the increase.
The bill the officials endorsed yesterday, sponsored by Del. C. William Frick, D-Montgomery, would couple the gas tax increase with an increase in vehicle registration fees and indexation of the gas tax to a measure of inflation in the cost of construction. The measure would also put a constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot creating a firewall putting the Transportation Trust Fund off limits for transfers to the general fund except in the case of an emergency. It would take a three-fifths vote of the legislature to declare such an emergency.
Frick told the Ways and Means Committee that "we need to put the trust back in the trust fund."
The county executives and mayor called for a restoration of the highway users funds to the level in fiscal year 2008, when the counties received about a 30 percent share of the money from the transportation fund.
Baker told the lawmakers that he didn't feel it was right to come to the legislature for more aid without supporting a means to pay for it.
"We're saying we're in it with you," he said.
The executives faced skeptical questioning from some members of the committee, several of whom expressed concern that the increase could have a negative effect on business.
But some of the state's top business leaders told the panel increased transportation revenues are desperately needed.
"Mobility is an essential part of economic growth. You've got to move goods, people and services," said Greater Baltimore Committee President Donald C. Fry.
But some sectors of Maryland business opposed any increase.
The Maryland Motor Truck Administration staged a demonstration in Annapolis Tuesday against the proposed increase beforetestifying against the bill.
The trucking association said the legislation would mean an average increase in costs for truckers of $2,700 a year. The group supported the constitutional amendment but said it should be passed separately from the gas tax and registration fee increases.
The group said a series of transportation revenue increases passed in 2007 didn't generate the expected money but will as the economy recovers. "As the economy continues to improve, the existing revenue structure will generate significant revenue growth without the need to pile on new tax and fee increases," the association said.