A newly released grim forecast for state transportation revenues has helped fuel a proposal to raise dozens of fees that motorists pay for items such as driver's licenses, titles and tags.
A Maryland Senate committee plans to vote by tomorrow on the proposal that key lawmakers said has a sizable amount of support among senators.
The measure, which would raise about $50 million in the 1992 budget year, would help replenish dwindling transportation revenues and pay for some highway projects.
Under a Schaefer administration bill, the cost of a driver's license renewal would rise from the current $6 to $20, a title certificate for a new car would increase from $1 to $12, the tag transfer fee would rise from $1 to $10, and a learner's permit would rise from $22 to $36. Some of the fees have not been raised in decades.
State transportation officials told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee yesterday that a new forecast this month predicts a drastic decline in revenues that will endanger road projects during the coming budget year.
Without higher taxes and fees, Maryland will not be able to kick in the amount of state money needed to obtain federal funds for interstate highway construction in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, said Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer.
In addition to losing from $150 million to $420 million in federal funds, the state will not have enough money to repair highways and bridges, he said.
Several legislators voiced their skepticism of the revenue projections and wondered if Transportation Department officials developed them as a lobbying tool for higher Motor Vehicle Administration fees and gasoline taxes.
"The department has historically manipulated figures or miscalculated," said Sen. Julian L. Lapides, D-City. Lapides called the new figures "another cry of wolf."
The legislature's chief fiscal analyst, William S. Ratchford, predicted that transportation revenues will not be quite as low as the department projects. He believes the department still will have $61 million available for new projects during the budget year that begins July 1, but the department says it will have $3 million.
A potential roadblock to the fee proposal, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Eastern Shore, said the House would reconsider the issue if the Senate approves it and gains assurances from transportation officials on how the money would be spent.
The House Ways and Means Committee last week voted against the Schaefer bill that would increase both the MVA fees and gasoline taxes.
Legislative leaders say it is highly unlikely that the General Assembly will raise gasoline taxes this session, due in part to strong opposition in the House of Delegates.
Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, said the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee plans to amend the bill to address the House's concerns on the fee proposal. The changes would attempt to define how the fee revenues would be spent and how much the department would borrow against them.
The fees are part of a Schaefer administration bill that also would have imposed a 5 percent sales tax on motor fuel. The entire bill would have pumped $1.6 billion into the state's depleted Transportation Trust Fund over the next five years.
To address the long-term problem of dwindling transportation revenues, the General Assembly probably will have to raise gasoline taxes next year or in a special session this fall, predicted Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's.