Car registration fee rise sought for medical funds

Emergency system facing large cuts

March 02, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Faced with the prospect of large cuts in the state's emergency medical system, the General Assembly is considering a $3-a-year increase in the fee paid by Marylanders to register their cars.

A similar increase was rejected last year, but Senate and House leaders suggested yesterday that support has grown because it is all but certain that the Maryland Emergency Medical System's operations fund will have a $7.2 million deficit by July of next year.

The fund pays for such services as state police MedEvac helicopters, training at the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, Maryland Shock Trauma Center and grants to local fire departments to purchase equipment.

"I don't think anybody questions that this is a worthwhile program that needs funding," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "It's how we do it."

The most likely source of new funding would be increasing the amount people pay to register their cars to $76 every two years from the current $70.

"I personally think it's the right way to pay for it," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "There are other ways that are being looked at, and the overall goal is to make sure it is paid for."

The $70 fee includes $16 dedicated to emergency medical services, which generates about $33 million a year. The increase would provide an additional $13 million annually.

"The fund has provided a steady and reliable source of income for the system," said Dr. Robert R. Bass, executive director of the state's emergency medical agency. "Without a funding increase, we will have a $5 million to $7 million deficit next year and we'll be forced to make significant cuts."

At a joint hearing yesterday of the House Appropriations and Commerce and Government Matters committees, Bass and other emergency medical officials warned of the cuts that would need to be made, including:

Reducing MedEvac helicopter flying time by up to 500 hours a year.

Training 4,000 fewer firefighters and paramedics at the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute. More than 26,000 were trained last year.

Fewer nurses at Shock Trauma, decreasing the number of severely injured trauma patients the center can treat.

Less money for local volunteer fire departments to purchase expensive equipment and fewer purchases of defibrillators.

Firefighters, hospital officials, police officers and accident victims whose lives were saved also supported the increased car registration fee to preserve the services. No one testified against the proposal.

"We're going to do everything we can possibly do," said Del. John F. Wood Jr., a Southern Maryland Democrat who heads the Commerce and Government Matters Committee. "That funding will be there to keep this going."

Republicans questioned whether the extra money has to come from an increase in the car registration fee.

"When we have a $375 million surplus, this is not the time we should be raising taxes on every Marylander who drives a car," said Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Howard County Republican.

Increasing the car registration fee appears to be the most popular option among Democratic lawmakers, but other ideas also are being considered, including a $20 surcharge on moving traffic violations that result in fines.

"Put the burden for this system partially on the offenders," said Del. Norman H. Conway, an Eastern Shore Democrat.

A spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening said the governor is committed to ensuring that the emergency-services system has enough money. Glendening is not opposed to raising the car registration fee but is willing to let legislators decide the best source of new revenues. That is similar to the position taken by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

"This is something that we absolutely, positively, unequivocally will find funding for before we adjourn," Miller said.

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