After a full-court press by the Schaefer administration and highway contractors who want to keep money flowing for new roads, key lawmakers are close to agreeing to raise Maryland's fees for drivers' licenses, titles and tags in a special session this month.
The plan would raise about $40 million a year, which could be used as matching funds to keep Maryland from losing up to $312 million in federal money for interstate highway and bridge construction this summer.
State transportation officials say they will lose the federal funds because they do not have enough money to pay for their share of the projects.
Sources said an informal agreement to raise roughly 60 different Motor Vehicle Administration fees could be reached this week and enacted when the General Assembly convenes in a special budget session June 26.
"It's almost soup," one source said.
While highway contractors yesterday unveiled a slick publicity campaign to convince legislators to raise money for road projects, the administration has been working quietly on the plan's chief opponent, Speaker of the House R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Eastern Shore.
Mitchell steadfastly opposed any increases in gasoline taxes or motor vehicle fees during the 1991 legislative session. However, State House sources said he now appears prepared to yield to the demands of the governor and fellow lawmakers who don't want to lose federally funded projects in their districts.
For his part, Mitchell yesterday would not rule out raising revenues for transportation projects. "It's possible. Anything's possible," he said.
Mitchell has repeatedly criticized the transportation department for failing to provide reliable revenue estimates and a satisfactory construction plan.
Yesterday Mitchell said he is disappointed that the governor has failed to find ways other than raising fees or taxes to secure the federal funds.
"They just don't seem to have used any imagination in putting something together for the saving of these funds," he said. "I think they could find enough money to save the funds."
While the fee increase is a possibility, the legislature appears unlikely to raise motor fuel taxes this month, legislators said.
Before they consider a new gasoline tax, lawmakers want the transportation department to come up with a detailed program that places special emphasis on trolleys, commuter rail and other mass transit options, said Del. Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, who chairs a House transportation subcommittee.
The Senate appears ready to pass the fee increase this month, if the House goes along with it, said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-City, vice chair of the Budget and Taxation Committee.
The Senate approved fee increases earlier this year, but the measure died in the House at Mitchell's orders.
Meanwhile, a group of road builders and engineers hurt by the slump in highway construction has hired Image Dynamics Inc., a public relations firm run by longtime Schaefer booster Phyllis Brotman, to push for an increase in gasoline taxes and motor vehicle fees.
Calling itself Marylanders for Efficient and Safe Highways, or MESH, the group is paying Image Dynamics $5,000 a month plus expenses to orchestrate the campaign. The coalition staged its first press conference yesterday at Routes 29 and 103 in Howard County, against the backdrop of a large asphalt paving machine.
Well-dressed highway contractors, engineers and a labor official gathered to explain why they believe the state should raise the gasoline tax by up to 10 cents per gallon and increase MVA fees.
Their proposal, which closely resembles one pushed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer earlier this year, seeks to raise $1.5 billion over five years for highway construction.
Afterward, Brotman said she expects MESH members to go on talk shows to explain their plan. MESH also plans to meet individually with every state legislator by June 14, said Robert E. Latham, executive director of both MESH and the Maryland Highway Contractors Association.
If MESH cannot get the package passed on June 26, then the group will shoot for September, when the legislature returns for another special session to address redistricting issues, Brotman said.
On June 26, the General Assembly will be recalled to Annapolis to approve legislation to shift $78.5 million in funds to help balance a 1991 fiscal year budget that could be as much as $109 million below revenue projections.