ANNAPOLIS -- The House of Delegates delivered two more major defeats to the Schaefer administration yesterday, rejecting a $42 million proposal to raise motor vehicle fees and refusing to act on the governor's request for permission to reorganize his own bureaucracy.
The House Rules Committee voted unanimously without debate to kill the proposed motor vehicle fee increases, which the administration said were needed to pay for Maryland's highway construction program for at least a year.
In addition, the same committee ignored another major Schaefer administration bill, one that would have reorganized state juvenile, health and social welfare agencies.
The panel's inaction -- the administration needed the Rules Committee to refer the bill to a standing committee for a vote -- means that the proposal probably won't get full House consideration before the 90-day session ends at midnight Monday. "I don't like to say that anything is dead, but it is unlikely to be enacted this session," said David S. Iannucci, Governor Schaefer's chief legislative officer. "We had hoped to achieve some real efficiencies and savings in government. Obviously, that will not be going anywhere."
The proposed increase in motor vehicle fees would have raised the cost of a title certificate for a new car from $1 to $12 and a driver's license
renewal from $6 to $20 as well as raising nearly 60 other fees for Motor Vehicle Administration services.
Earlier, committees in both the House and Senate had junked a proposed 5 percent sales tax on gasoline. Governor Schaefer had offered both the tax and the fee increases to raise $1.5 billion for highway construction and mass transit projects.
The Senate approved the motor vehicle fees bill by a narrow margin, but administration officials had feared that the House, and Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, represented their greatest obstacle.
The House Ways and Means Committee, which voted down the original proposal last month, reiterated its position yesterday before the Rules Committee vote.
"It's obvious from the figures we've seen that the state can get through this year without any hardship to the transportation program," said Delegate Tyras S. Athey, D-Anne Arundel, the Ways and Means Committee's chairman.
Nevertheless, administration officials warned that the decision could jeopardize as much as $420 million in federal highway construction funds over the next five years.
"Nobody can dispute the department needs money, and it needs money now," said O. James Lighthizer, the state's transportation secretary. "We're going to have to re-examine the capital construction programs and see if we can salvage some federal money."
In fact, the one thing upon which both sides in the debate agree is that there is little money for new highway projects. According to estimates by both the Transportation Department and the legislature's Department of Fiscal Services, the state will raise between $16 million and $61 million for new programs next year. That is a relatively paltry amount compared with the state's $2.4 billion six-year transportation spending plan.
But one possible consequence is that the state may now only qualify for $290 million of $420 million in federal highway money for lack of matching funds, warned William S. Ratchford II, the legislature's chief budget adviser.
"Please don't misunderstand me. If you all do nothing, you will not preserve the full $420 million," Mr. Ratchford told members of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Legislators admit that pessimistic revenue projections mean they will have to eventually adopt both a gas tax and some motorist fee increases, possibly as early as the special legislative session planned for this fall.
Nevertheless, lawmakers pointed out that even without the fee increase, more than $800 million in transportation projects already under way will likely continue.
"It seems to me that there will be a lot of road construction activity." said Delegate Gene W. Counihan, D-Montgomery. "All contractors and all road builders will not be put out of work."