Huge surplus paves way to fill transportation gap

September 05, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

A $320 million budget surplus presents Gov. Parris Glendening with a splendid opportunity to address a number of priorities without breaking into a political sweat.

At the top of this list ought to be Maryland's enormous funding gap in transportation. Mr. Glendening has avoided this issue like the plague. Now he can propose a nearly pain-free solution.

Maryland's roads and bridges, its port and airport, and its mass transit systems could be in a pickle without a hefty inflow of new capital pretty soon.

Money from the gasoline tax and various transportation fees isn't nearly enough to underwrite the expensive additions that are needed. There's a transportation spending gap that approaches $2.5 billion over six years.

That's not even counting other big-bucks projects such as rebuilding the Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River and an east-west, cross-county highway from Rockville to the Laurel area.

Without more funds, transportation officials soon will be forced to drop most improvement and extension projects. They'll only have enough money to maintain what we now have.

That would kill economic development and cost Maryland tens of thousands of jobs. It might be the sort of no-growth scenario zealous environmental activists would love, but what kind of future would Maryland have?

That's where the governor's bulging surplus comes in.

The time has come to fortify the state's transportation trust fund with money from the state's sales tax receipts.

Dedicating just a half-penny from the 5-cent sales-tax levy to transportation would equal $230 million, based on the revenue generated by this tax in the last fiscal year that ended in June.

That would be enough, along with some higher license and titling fees, to finance the bulk of the state's transportation projects for the next six years.

You could do it without having to raise the gasoline tax by another nickel a gallon -- a highly unpopular proposal that would be politically impossible to enact in the middle of an economic boom.

Continuing large surpluses should convince Mr. Glendening that Maryland's economy is sustaining itself at a much higher level than previously expected.

In other words, he can afford to divert $230 million in sales tax revenue out of the general fund to transportation.

He'd still have plenty of cash left over to pay for a big college-construction program and to add to his already huge public-school construction commitment.

There could even be money for a large state assault on the alarming drug problem, deficiencies in public health, greater support for local police departments and -- dare we mention it? -- a tax cut.

A no-brainer

Accelerating an already-scheduled reduction in the personal income tax would be a no-brainer. There could be other modest tax reductions, too.

The governor has every politician's favorite problem: a ton of cash to distribute.

Not only is there a $320 million surplus sitting in the treasury, but the current fiscal year could generate a hefty surplus, too.

And if the state's economy continues to expand at its present rate, there should be another $300 million in projected new tax revenue in the budget the governor submits next January.

There's also the tobacco-suit settlement money. The least Maryland will receive in 2000 will be $300 million, with more to come every year thereafter.

It's a delightful predicament for the governor. And it comes at the right time for him, too.

What better way to impress Vice President Al Gore -- who will be searching for a running mate next summer -- than to orchestrate a state budget that solves a big transportation dilemma, addresses key social concerns and still finds a way to cut taxes.

Status enhancer

Such an ambitious budget would give Mr. Glendening enhanced status as he prepares to become chairman of the National Governors Association next year -- a splendid national bully pulpit.

An added bonus could be had if he decides to dedicate a big chunk of any new transportation money to mass transit. That would be in keeping with his pro-environmental Smart Growth strategy that has been praised and embraced by the vice president.

Mass transit, especially in the Baltimore region, needs a boost -- and a champion. Mr. Glendening now has the surplus funds to fill this role.

Will Mr. Glendening be so bold? He'll never again have a moment like this. The state's current prosperity -- and fat surplus -- could be his springboard to higher office.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

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