The governor's efforts to have it both ways

Glendening: After opposing higher road and transit taxes for four years, now he's reversing course.

February 06, 1999

NO WONDER the public is confused. In his last two statewide campaigns, Parris N. Glendening opposed higher taxes to pay for road and mass transit projects. Yet even before he was inaugurated for a second term last month, the governor changed his tune, asserting Maryland must raise its gasoline tax to ease traffic congestion.

Now, just three weeks later, the governor has taken the issue off the table for 1999 while reiterating the need for more taxes in 2000.

Mr. Glendening has thrived by playing both sides of this issue. Even as his transportation aides urged him to raise the gasoline tax, the governor said no. But with his re-election secured, the governor is saying yes to higher taxes next year.

The reason for this turnaround can be found in the same bleak numbers that alarmed his aides: Maryland is running out of dedicated tax revenue to pay for road and transit priorities.

Maryland is expected to start losing federal highway funds in 2001 because it won't be able to put up local matching dollars. There will only be enough money to maintain existing roads and transit systems.

How will Maryland pay for a costly port expansion if it wins a giant shipping contract from Sea-Land and Maersk? How will the state pay its share of a new $2 billion Woodrow W. Wilson Bridge? How will it fund widening the Baltimore Beltway or adding mass transit rail lines?

The gas tax supplies most money for transportation projects. The governor has talked of raising it 5 cents a gallon. House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. wants a sales-tax increase instead. Neither option is viable while the state enjoys fat surpluses.

Another approach should be considered: Earmarking a small portion of the existing sales tax for transportation. Just 5 percent of the total sales tax revenue would finance most projects.

This would provide a stable source of funds that, unlike the gasoline tax, is inflation-sensitive. That would help ward off the need for future gas-tax increases.

State leaders should seek a solution that avoids more taxes in a time of plenty. With the economy roaring along, it would be politically perilous to impose a major tax increase in the near term.

Pub Date: 2/06/99

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