Gov. William Donald Schaefer today called on the General Assembly to approve a 5 percent fuel tax on gasoline to be added to the existing state tax of 18 1/2 cents per gallon. In addition, he asked the legislature to approve a state takeover of the cost of operating Baltimore's jail and zoo in his annual State of the State address.
Schaefer reportedly waited until the last minute before decidin whether to propose the gasoline tax increase to replenish a depleted fund used for transportation projects.
Schaefer's legislative agenda traditionally is unveiled in his annual speech to the legislature. His speech today, delayed by President Bush's address to the nation, contained his first formal call for a state takeover of the city jail, where city officials say costs are too high for them to fund. Schaefer also called for the legislature to approve a takeover of the Baltimore Zoo.
The governor has made it clear in the past that he wants more money for road projects, but he waited until today to announce his push for a new 5 percent sales tax on motor fuel, which would rise and fall with the price of gasoline. The existing state tax is a flat, per-gallon charge.
Aside from the gas tax, Schaefer's speech may be notable for what it did not contain: a specific plan to raise income and other taxes recommended by the so-called Linowes Commission, a controversial report calling for $800 million in new revenues to pay for education and other state needs.
Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg said pieces of the Linowes plan could filter into legislation this winter.
Although Schaefer has said repeatedly that he supports the Linowes plan -- which attempts to restructure Maryland's tax system to hit wealthy people harder -- he has resisted efforts to turn it directly into legislation.
"If you keep calling it a tax bill, you can kiss it goodbye," Steinberg said yesterday. "A lot of politicians out there are scared to use the word 'tax.' "
Rather than introducing a Linowes bill now, administration officials continue to meet with legislators in an attempt to agree on ways to bring in more money to help relieve the state's financial crunch and assist the state's poorest areas.
The governor's Transportation Revenue Committee generally agreed this month that an additional $1.35 billion needs to be raised over the next five years to preserve and expand the state's transportation system.
Yesterday the committee chairman, William K. Hellman, said that without more money in the next 18 months many state road projects already planned would be delayed. As many as 7,500 highway construction-related jobs also could be lost, Hellman said.
The state's new Baltimore-area light-rail line so far has been left untouched by the transportation problems, under orders from the governor.
Schaefer touched upon most of the 19 bills in his legislative package.
His environmental initiatives include plans for tree conservation, phased-in growth controls around the state and an expansion of the state's vehicle-emissions inspection program to cover six additional counties outside the Baltimore region.
The tree bill would discourage tree cutting and urge replacement, according to Schaefer aides, basically following the outlines of draft legislation that some environmentalists say is too weak. Schaefer aides declined to give details of the reforestation measure.
Similar tree legislation failed in the final hours of the 1990 session. Proponents blamed its demise on a last-minute move by House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Eastern Shore.
Central to the governor's latest focus on environmental issues is a bill that would phase in the so-called 2020 Commission report, a set of proposals to regulate growth in the Chesapeake Bay region by concentrating development around existing towns with facilities that are adequate to handle growth.
Under the phased-in approach, the strict density requirements recommended by the 2020 Commission would be open to negotiation with local officials.
The governor's bill is expected to meet strong opposition among rural lawmakers, who fear additional growth restrictions and loss of some zoning powers traditionally reserved for local governments.
Other bills in Schaefer's package would:
* Ban the purchase of assault weapons and require adults who own firearms to keep them locked against use by children.
* Charge an average of $25 a month to many people on parole and probation to help pay for the cost of their supervision.