County Executive Robert R. Neall made like a General Assembly lobbyist yesterday to push Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposal to increase gasoline taxes.
Neall led successful efforts to pass similar increases in 1982 and 1987 while serving as House of Delegates minority leader. He said the projected $1.5 billion in revenue the increase would generate for the state's Transportation Trust Fund over five years is crucial to preserving the county's economic health.
"I'll be down there making these arguments in the legislature," he told the West Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce after having breakfast with Department of Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer.
Without the added gas tax, Neall said, plans to complete expansions of U.S. 50 and routes 32, 3, 10 and 100 in the county would come to a halt.
"Anne Arundel County was a major beneficiary of theTransportation Trust Fund in the past few years," Neall said. "It ain't finished yet."
The state spent about 25 percent of the trust fund on county projects during the past four years, while Lighthizer was county executive.
The DOT has estimated that the fund will fall$521 million short of estimates for the fiscal year ending June 30 due to a recessionary plunge in motor vehicle tax receipts.
"This is a bad time to do that. We need to do everything we can to keep people working," Neall said. "Anne Arundel County's future is inexorably tied to transportation."
He is supporting the tax to assure construction of the Baltimore regional light rail system, expansion of Baltimore-Washington International Airport and revitalization of the Portof Baltimore.
But the county's own legislative delegation could prove a hard sell -- especially after they watched many of their colleagues in other counties booted from office by voters tired of rising taxes.
"What is still resounding in our ears is that the electorate said, 'No new growth; no new taxes,' " said Neall's legislative liaison, Myron Wotring. "But if it makes sense to the taxpayers that we need roads to drive on, maybe they'll buy it."
Several county legislators cautioned, however, that Schaefer will have to start talking sense about how he wants to increase the gas tax.
In his State of the State address Friday, Schaefer pitched a 5 percent sales tax on the price of a gallon of gas, plus the 14-cent federal and 18.5-cent state excise taxes. But he told reporters Monday he didn't care whether the money is raised in a sales tax or by increasing the excise tax.
The governor's imprecision has left the State House full of questions.
"I don't think it should be a sales tax. It would be a tax on the taxes," said Sen. Michael Wagner, D-Ferndale, who, as majority whip, would be charged with guiding the governor's program through the Senate.
Sen. Philip Jimeno, D-Brooklyn Park, agreed, saying, "A sales tax is not an acceptable way of doing it. It doesn't give you asteady flow of income. If gas is $2 (per gallon), you get 5 percent of that, but what if it goes down to $1?"
Freshman Delegate Joan Cadden, D-Brooklyn Park, said she could offer no opinion. Lighthizer, she said, did not specify what kind of tax he wanted when he appearedyesterday before the House Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee .
"All I know is what I've read in the papers," she said. "They haven't brought us a proposal yet."
Neall also made no distinction between a sales or an excise tax. Spokeswoman Louise Hayman said only that he would leave the choice up to the legislature.