Stoltzfus predicts GOP backing for Ehrlich on transportation

Majority of caucus seen supporting choice by governor to raise funds

December 03, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Senate's Republican leader predicted yesterday that the majority of his caucus will support whatever decision Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. makes on how to raise money for transportation - even if it means voting for tax and fee increases.

Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus said the 14 Republicans in the 47-member Senate are far from agreed on how the governor should go about replenishing the state's Transportation Trust Fund. The Eastern Shore lawmaker said the mix of any revenue package and how the money would be spent will be the subject of negotiations.

But once a decision is made, most GOP senators will back Ehrlich, Stoltzfus said.

"There's a recognition that the governor's got to govern," he said after a closed-door briefing of the caucus by Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan.

The Republican senators' backing could give Ehrlich some maneuvering room as he approaches a difficult decision on how to raise the $300 million a year that his Transportation Department says it needs to meet the state's needs.

Among the choices presented to the governor by a task force on transportation are increases in the state's 23 1/2 -cent-a-gallon gasoline tax and in vehicle registration fees.

Flanagan said Ehrlich has yet to decide what to do about transportation revenue. He said a decision may not come until early in the legislative session that begins in January.

The governor has ruled out increases in the sales and income taxes but has said he would consider an increase in the gasoline tax.

House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell said he also expects his GOP caucus to be "fully supportive" of the governor on transportation - but he indicated that backing might have its limits.

"A gasoline tax is very problematic for most of our members," the Calvert County lawmaker said.

Republican support for any Ehrlich transportation legislation is crucial because the majority Democrats are unlikely to vote for a tax or fee increase unless the governor can deliver GOP votes.

An AAA Mid-Atlantic-sponsored poll released yesterday showed that more than 53 percent of Maryland drivers are willing to pay an increased gasoline tax if the money is used solely for transportation.

Nevertheless, some Republican senators drew a hard line against any tax or fee increases.

"We need to look at cutting back on mass transit and making it economical, and that'll free up more money for the roads," said Sen. Alexander X. Mooney.

The Frederick County Republican said he would vote against any increase in taxes or fees.

Mooney said he and Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate, spoke out in the caucus against raising taxes.

However, the traffic in some parts of Maryland is forcing even staunch conservatives to think the unthinkable.

Sen. J. Robert Hooper of Harford County said the traffic in his district is so clogged he could not rule out eventually coming around to supporting tax and fee increases for transportation. "If the gridlock is bad enough, do we have a choice?" he said. "We may not."

Stoltzfus said he would tell Ehrlich that many Republican senators want any revenue package to include a "firewall" to ensure that money raised from motorists would be used for roads. Such revenues now go into a general transportation fund that also provides money for mass transit.

Any "firewall" that doesn't come with a reliable source of funding for mass transit could cost Ehrlich support from the General Assembly's majority Democrats - most of whom represent urban and inner suburban districts.

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