ANNAPOLIS -- The Senate narrowly approved an increase in motor vehicle fees yesterday to provide $42 million for the state's depleted Transportation Trust Fund, but House leaders said they were unlikely to go along.
The bill, which raises fees for driver's licenses and more than 60 other services offered by the Motor Vehicle Administration, is all that remains of a Schaefer administration proposal to raise $1.5 billion over the next five years through increases in the gas tax, truck and car registration fees, and dozens of other MVA fees.
Although the bill slipped through the Senate, 26-21, it now goes to the House Rules Committee, where it could be bottled up until next Monday's midnight adjournment.
House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, reiterated his opposition to the proposal, saying he remains unconvinced that the Transportation Department cannot survive the year without an increase in revenue.
Mr. Mitchell said his only concern was that doing nothing this session could jeopardize the state's ability to claim matching federal highway funds.
But even if that appeared probable, he said, the General Assembly could address the problem when it reconvened in September for a special session on congressional reapportionment.
However, Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, and Senate Minority Leader John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel, told their colleagues the state could lose as much as $420 million in federal funds.
"It's a measure that's drastically needed. [But] it's a measure that nobody wants to vote for," said Senator Cade.
Despite the arguments put forth by Senate leaders, House leaders remain skeptical.
"I think the feeling is, the public can't take any more taxes," said Delegate Thomas H. Hattery, D-Frederick, chairman of the Ways and Means' transportation subcommittee.
Delegate Tyras S. Athey, D-Anne Arundel, the Ways and Means chairman, said figures developed by the legislature's chief budget adviser, William S. Ratchford II, show thatthe Department of Transportation will have more money available for the coming fiscal year than department statistics indicate.
"I've been taking Ratch's figures for 25 years. I'm not about to dump them now," Mr. Athey said.
During Senate debate, it seemedas if the "no new taxes" message legislators heard during the last November's election was still ringing, as one senator after another stood to denounce the bill.
"Let's not fool ourselves, people. This is a gas tax . . . and I told my constituents I wasn't going to vote for it," said Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, D-Baltimore County. "I got the message."