Lawmakers say transportation, taxation head agenda Leaders address Md. Chamber of Commerce

Commerce

October 14, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- Transportation and taxation will be at the top of the General Assembly agenda next year regardless of who is elected governor, legislative leaders told the Maryland Chamber of Commerce yesterday.

The Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate and House of Delegates told business leaders that there is a broad agreement that the state's Transportation Trust Fund needs to be shored up -- but little consensus on how to do so. In particular, the legislators said, there is little political will to raise the state's gasoline tax -- the traditional source of money for transportation funds.

The legislative leaders added that how that fund will be replenished depends largely on whether incumbent Democrat Parris N. Glendening or Republican challenger Ellen R. Sauerbrey wins the governor's race. But leaders of both parties said they expect little change in the party lineup in the Democratic-dominated Assembly.

The legislative leaders gave their predictions for the 1999 session at the chamber's annual legislative conference.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller called both Sauerbrey and Glendening "irresponsible" for proposing massive transportations projects without saying how they would pay for them. He mentioned Sauerbrey's plan to build a $1 billion highway called the Inter-county Connector -- linking Interstates 270 and 95 -- and Glendening's ambitious plans to extend the Washington-area Metrorail system.

Miller also criticized Sauerbrey's proposal to shift mass transit subsidies from the transportation fund to the state's general operating budget in order to free up money for road-building. He noted that such a move would pit transit needs against those of education and other programs.

"It's not a viable option," said Miller.

But Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican who represented the Senate minority, expressed strong support for decoupling mass transit from the trust fund.

Maintaining and expanding Maryland's transportation system -- frequently cited as one of the state's strongest economic development assets -- was one of the leading concerns cited at the chamber's three-day gathering.

On Monday, business leaders heard a presentation by highway advocates saying that growing mass transit subsidies are taking a toll on the state's ability to build the roads needed to relieve congestion.

The group, Marylanders for Efficient and Safe Highways (MESH), estimated that at current rates of spending, the trust fund would be reduced to the level where it could pay for no more than maintenance of existing roads by 2003. MESH estimated $4.3 billion in highway projects are now on hold because of a lack of transportation funds.

Legislative leaders said yesterday that while they are aware of those concerns, the public is not.

House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican, said it would not be easy for legislators to vote to raise Maryland's 23.5-cent-a-gallon gas tax. But he would not hTC rule out Republican support for an increase as part of a larger package that also dealt with the high labor costs of mass transit systems.

Chamber President Champe McCulloch gave a preview of the organization's legislative agenda, which will be completed after the Nov. 3 election. He said work force development would be the chamber's "pre-eminent" issue.

Pub Date: 10/14/98

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