With less than five weeks left in the legislative session, the future appears dim for a proposal that could add nearly 7 cents to the price of a gallon of gasoline this summer.
Although some state Senate leaders said they could support it, House of Delegates Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. remains opposed to adding a 5 percent sales tax on motor fuel -- at least for this year.
However, the future seems brighter for a proposal to increase an array of Motor Vehicle Administration fees, some of which haven't been raised in decades, according to Mitchell and the Senate leaders.
To raise money for transportation projects, the Schaefer
administration has proposed the sales tax on motor fuel plus dozens of increases in MVA charges, including a 25 percent increase in annual vehicle-registration fees. That bill would pump $1.6 billion into the state's depleted Transportation Trust Fund over the next five years.
Without a revenue increase, state Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer warned yesterday, his department would have forgo about $215 million worth of transportation projects during the next 18 months.
Despite his opposition to the fuel sales tax this year, Mitchell, an Eastern Shore Democrat, said he may consider that tax next year after he studies transportation needs.
Mitchell seems willing to consider increases in various MVA fees during this session. Such fees might be able "to sustain" the Transportation Department through the year, Mitchell said.
Under the fee proposal, the cost of renewing a driver's license, for example, would rise from $6 to $20.
On the Senate side, President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said he supports the enactment of many of the tax and fee increases this year. "I think the monies are needed now. Roads and bridges won't be worked on without a gas tax increase," he said.
Miller admitted, however, that the bill is not very popular: "At the present time, I think that legislative sentiment is not present for a gas tax increase."
Senate budget leaders said they will be watching the House of Delegates to see what it decides to do. "Even if we had the votes over here, for us to pass the tax increase without [House support] doesn't make a lot of sense," said Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee.
Members of the construction industry, business groups and local government, including Anne Arundel, Howard and Montgomery counties, support the proposed sales tax on fuel.
Opponents, however, include the trucking industry, the American Automobile Association and Maryland service station operators.
The transportation bill establishes a 5 percent sales tax on top of the current 18.5-cents-per-gallon state tax and 14.1-cent federal tax. The sales tax would generate the bulk of the $1.6 billion the department is seeking over five years.
Proposed increases in MVA fees would raise $244 million over five years, while the registration fee increases would generate $142 million.