In the past week, momentum has been building in Annapolis to raise the gasoline tax. It is now the most-favored tax of state legislators as they try to cope with a $1.5 billion deficit over the next 17 months. But politicians ought to resist their initial temptation to siphon off this new revenue source for budget-balancing purposes. Gas-tax money is supposed to be used for transportation programs, and that's where the money should remain.
Two plans are now afloat. One, sponsored by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, would raise the gas tax by a nickel, to 23.5 cents a gallon. All the proceeds -- $625 million over five years -- would be spent on road, bridge and transit programs that would put 3,850 construction workers back on the job, spur the hiring of another 4,100 other workers and give Maryland's sagging economy a much-needed boost. The gas tax would do nothing to reduce a projected $1.2 billion state deficit.
A second plan, pushed by legislative leaders, calls for rapid passage of a bill extending the 5 percent sales tax to gasoline, which equates to a 6-cent-a-gallon increase. But legislators want to use this tax money initially to help balance the current year's budget. House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell also wants to raid the transportation trust fund of another $80 million to further close the $275 million gap in this year's budget.
There are major flaws in these legislative plans. Mr. Mitchell's proposal is unworkable because the $80 million he wants to divert doesn't exist: the transportation trust fund already is broke and currently has a cash deficit. As for the sales-tax plan, it could actually make matters worse if gas prices were to fall because it would mean less not more money for road-building projects.
Yet new gas-tax money is essential. Without added transportation revenue, the state cannot come up with the matching funds needed to qualify for $1.2 billion in federal road and transit allocations approved by Congress last year. The added cash would go toward job-creating projects to fix and enlarge deteriorating roadways and bridges; alleviate gridlock in crowded Montgomery County and other fast-growing suburbs; expand commuter-rail service, and encourage other mass-transit alternatives. These projects are key economic-development components for Maryland's future.
An unusually broad cross-section of interest groups testified in Annapolis last week in favor of a 5-cent rise in the gasoline tax. Most of them weren't happy about the prospects of higher fuel taxes, but they recognize this is the price that must be paid if Maryland is to continue to maintain and upgrade a transportation network that is the envy of most other states.
Can a Marylander who drives his or her car 12,000 miles a year, afford the extra $30 or so in higher gas taxes? We think so. Especially if drivers know this money is being used wisely, to ease traffic congestion, to promote mass transit and to put thousands of Marylanders back to work.