Maryland motorists may be able to escape a double assault on their wallets this year.
A Schaefer administration bill to impose a sales tax on motor fuel and increase Motor Vehicle Administration fees is in serious trouble in the General Assembly, key legislators said.
Leaders in the House of Delegates said legislation to raise money for transportation projects may not survive a committee vote that could be held as early as today.
"It's not 100 percent sure that it's dead, but it's pretty close" to that, said Del. Tyras S. Athey, D-Anne Arundel, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which plans to vote on the bill.
"People do not want to raise taxes this year," said House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, D-W. Md. After the House approved increases in capital gains and cigarette taxes, he said, "any appetite for the gasoline tax was lost."
Although the proposed 5 percent sales tax on motor fuel has appeared to be in trouble for weeks, the plan to raise an array of MVA fees seemed to have some legislative support until recently.
Some House leaders now say they are leaning against the plan to raise MVA fees, even though some of the fees have not been increased in decades.
The main reason for their change of heart, they said, is the Transportation Department's refusal to borrow as much money as lawmakers were recommending to pay for some new construction projects.
The department wants to concentrate its spending on maintenance efforts, while legislators "thought we ought to get some projects" with the money, Athey said.
Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer said he wanted to spend the new revenue primarily on costly maintenance efforts, such as redecking bridges and resurfacing roads.
Also, Lighthizer said, "I didn't want to borrow as much as they wanted me to. I want to err on the side of prudence."
House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. echoed Athey's disappointment with Lighthizer's stance on borrowing and the use of additional funds. The Eastern Shore Democrat said he believes the Transportation Department already has sufficient money for maintenance efforts.
The Schaefer bill proposes a 5 percent sales tax on motor fuel plus dozens of increases in MVA charges, including a 25 percent increase in annual vehicle-registration fees. Under the fee proposal, the cost of renewing a driver's license, for example, would rise from $6 to $20.
The bill would pump $1.6 billion into the state's depleted Transportation Trust Fund over the next five years.
Transportation officials, meanwhile, announced more bad news yesterday, saying revenues for February showed a marked decline compared with last year.
Lighthizer said his department could meet "basic necessities" without new taxes and higher fees, although new construction projects would be stalled. "I'm not going to tell you a bridge is going to fall in," he said.
Athey said the proposed gasoline sales tax and MVA fee increases may receive a warmer reception in the legislature next year.
Although the tax and fee increases have more support among state senators, a Senate committee may not even take up the bill if the House kills its version of it.
"I didn't see any point in a Senate struggle to get a piece of ## legislation passed when it's pretty clear that, on the House side, we wouldn't get anything done with it," said Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.
The transportation bill would establish a 5 percent sales tax on top of the current 18.5-cents-a-gallon state tax and 14.1-cents-a-gallon federal tax. The sales tax would generate the bulk of the $1.6 billion in new revenue the department is seeking over five years.
Proposed increases in MVA fees would raise $244 million over five years.