McMillen's no vote on bill puzzles some Conservative GOP opponent seen as key.

October 29, 1991|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Evening Sun Staff

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Tom McMillen cast a puzzling vote against a transportation funding bill that would finance projects throughout Maryland and benefit his own district.

It seemed odd to some people that McMillen, D-4th, would oppose a six-year, $151 billion bill that was supported by most Democrats, Maryland officials and six of the seven other members of Maryland's congressional delegation.

The House bill passed overwhelmingly Wednesday, 343-83, with the opposition concentrated among conservative Republicans -- not a group that McMillen, a political moderate, often aligns himself with.

Moreover, the bill contained $50 million for improvements to the Interstate 95 Woodrow Wilson Bridge, money that state officials say McMillen lobbied for and that would help his constituents in Prince George's County.

The bill contains lots of money for other projects with broad impact in Maryland, including $160 million for the Maryland Rail Commuter service, $60 million for the light rail line between Hunt Valley and Glen Burnie, $93 million for improvements to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and $28 million for improvements to Interstate 695, the Baltimore Beltway.

Kenneth Mannella, director of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's Washington office, said he thought McMillen might support the bill "if for no other reason than the Woodrow Wilson Bridge."

Stephen Sandherr of Associated General Contractors of America, a trade group that lobbied for the bill, said he was "a little surprised" to see McMillen among the opponents.

Maryland Republicans also took note of McMillen's vote, but said they weren't surprised. McMillen, they claim, is trying to appear more conservative as he prepares to run against Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest next year in the new 1st District, traditionally one of the state's most conservative areas.

McMillen and Gilchrest were thrown together into the 1st District when the Maryland General Assembly drew new congressional district boundaries last week. The 1st District consists mainly of the Eastern Shore, which Gilchrest now represents, a part of Anne Arundel County that McMillen represents, and a few precincts in South Baltimore.

Although McMillen hasn't said whether he will run in the 1st, suggesting he might run elsewhere, state Democratic Party chairman Nathan Landow is encouraging him to take on Gilchrest.

Gilchrest also voted against the transportation bill. Like McMillen, he cited reasons that would please anti-tax voters on the Eastern Shore, which benefits less than other areas of Maryland from the projects funded in the legislation.

The two attacked the bill for its four-year extension of 5-cent gallon gasoline tax increase Congress approved last year as part of a deficit reduction plan. McMillen supported the plan. Gilchrest was first elected last year and didn't begin serving

until January.

In a press release, McMillen criticized some of the projects as wasteful "pork barrel" items.

"Most of this tax will go to pay for so-called 'demonstration projects' in other parts of the nation," McMillen said. "This is not a fair tax on Americans and certainly treats Maryland unfairly."

But several projects benefiting Maryland are included, among them the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Mannella said state transportation officials consider them essential.

McMillen also complained that in the sixth year of the transportation bill's program, Maryland would become a "donor" state, paying more in gasoline taxes than it would get back in federal grants.

Mannella agreed that "it's an issue of concern," but emphasized other features of the bill that would help the state fund mass transit and thus decrease pollution and traffic congestion.

The House bill must be reconciled with a Senate measure that provides less money, lasts five years and does not require a gasoline tax extension. McMillen indicated support for the Senate measure.

Brad Fitch, McMillen's press secretary, said his vote reflected long-held doubts about extending a gas tax increase to fund questionable projects. In August, when House leaders were debating whether to support a larger tax increase, McMillen was considering voting against it, Fitch said, but the proposal never came to a vote.

"He's been leaning against it ever since it was proposed," Fitch said.

The 5-cent increase approved last year is scheduled to expire in 1995. The House bill would extend half of it, 2.5 cents, until 1999.

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