A baker's deal could save state's truckers dough

April 03, 1992|By John W. Frece and Laura Lippman | John W. Frece and Laura Lippman,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- If ordinary motorists wind up paying 6 cents a gallon more for gasoline over the next eight months while truckers don't, they can look to a back-room deal brokered by a politically connected Baltimore baker and truck stop owner.

In the hallway behind the state Senate chamber, beyond the sign that bars ordinary lobbyists, John Paterakis presented himself earlier this week to complain about a bill that would raise the state's tax on diesel fuel.

With the aid of a friendly senator and some leverage on an unrelated bill transportation officials desperately want, Mr. Paterakis appears close to getting what he wants: a delay in the full tax increase on the fuel truckers buy.

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee yesterday passed a bill that would increase Maryland's tax on gasoline by 6 cents a gallon, to 24.5 cents, starting May 1. The House earlier passed a nickel-a-gallon increase.

But in a change that Sen. John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel, publicly criticized as "the Paterakis amendment," the panel voted to split the increase on diesel and delay it. Three cents would be added to the price on Jan. 1, 1993, and the other half on July 1, 1993.

The change would cost state and local governments $14 million in lost revenue.

By a 7-6 vote, the committee narrowly defeated an effort by Sen. William H. Amoss, D-Harford, to delay the two-tier increase for truckers even longer -- to July 1, 1993, and Jan. 1, 1994, respectively. That would have meant a $28 million loss in revenue.

"This amendment is atrocious," said Sen. Julian L. Lapides, D-Baltimore. "We're socking it to the average Joe Citizen, and we continually give special interests another break."

Mr. Paterakis is the owner of H&S Bakery, a developer and a prominent contributor to Gov. William Donald Schaefer and other Maryland politicians. He also owns Port Truck Plaza, an East Baltimore truck stop that has apparently prompted his interest in the diesel tax issue.

Legislators and others familiar with his involvement say he wants to keep the pump price for diesel as low as possible to encourage truckers passing through Maryland to buy their fuel at his truck stop.

Mr. Paterakis did not return several telephone calls this week to discuss the issue. Governor Schaefer said yesterday that he had never discussed the matter with him.

But the governor seemed well aware of Mr. Paterakis' arguments, saying: "I have to figure out if what he says is true. He says no trucks will stop in Maryland [if the tax is raised]."

Some months ago Mr. Paterakis tried to sell the truck stop to the state of Maryland, a deal so clearly political that it was vetoed by the Maryland Transportation Authority, which is chaired by Secretary O. James Lighthizer.

To get Mr. Lighthizer's attention on the diesel tax issue, Mr. Paterakis enlisted Sen. George W. Della Jr., D-Baltimore, to hold up unrelated legislation before the Finance Committee that would give the Department of Transportation its own personnel system -- a bill transportation officials want so badly that they're willing to pay for it.

"Lots of people are interested in that bill," said Mr. Della, who sits on the Finance Committee. As for the diesel tax, he said the increase should be "spread out more" because "I know it hurts all the truck stops."

Mr. Lighthizer acknowledged that a delay in the diesel tax would cost the department money, but not as much as an earlier deal to get legislative votes that would have the department pay mass transit operating costs in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

"These deals that one cuts to get to do things cost money," he conceded. "Yes, this costs money, but in the scheme of things it isn't the biggest thing."

House Bill 610, which is something Mr. Lighthizer wants, would allow the Department of Transportation to set up its own personnel system, reducing benefits enjoyed by its 6,000 classified state employees.

According to Sue Esty of the American Federation of State, Government and Municipal Employees, a draft version of the bill would cost employees extended sick leave, advance sick leave and accident leave. The probationary period also would double, from six months to a year.

While other state departments, such as the University of Maryland System, have separate personnel departments, those employees are guaranteed the rights and benefits of all state employees, Ms. Esty said. They wouldn't get those rights under the DOT bill.

Ms. Esty said the bill troubled her because the department has been known to watch its employees closely. For example, two TTC Transportation Department workers who testified against the 40-hour work week last year promptly received letters from Secretary Lighthizer telling them they were not team players.

Ed Custer, a data programmer for the department, told the Finance Committee yesterday that the new personnel system would compound morale problems.

"I believe I and most of my co-workers will be hurt by this bill," Mr. Custer said.

However, Mr. Lighthizer said a separate personnel system would benefit ambitious workers whose ability to advance is sometimes hampered by the current system.

"It's going to be a very big plus for the average employee, especially the one who wants to move up in the organization," the secretary testified.

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