Ehrlich asks support for legislative plans

Gasoline tax increase all but ruled out, lawmakers say

General Assembly

January 23, 2004|By Michael Dresser and David Nitkin | Michael Dresser and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. sought the support of General Assembly leaders yesterday for a moderate but incomplete legislative agenda that left lawmakers hungry for specifics about the state's most pressing issues.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers who met with Ehrlich at the State House said he all but ruled out proposing an increase in the state's 23.5-cent -a-gallon gasoline tax as he outlined measures he hopes to enact this year to protect the Chesapeake Bay, reduce crime and lower the cost of health care.

"He said that takes more political capital than we have," said Del. Kumar Barve of Montgomery County, the House majority leader. "Without actually driving a stake through its heart, he ruled it out."

Lawmakers said the governor promised to find other ways to meet the state's transportation revenue needs, which a high-profile commission put at $300 million a year.

That issue, slot machines and a plan to fully fund the Thornton education formula were the three items most conspicuously absent from the wish list the governor outlined yesterday.

Most of the items in the governor's package had previously been announced. They address issues including malpractice awards, ethics and a new fee to upgrade sewage-treatment plants.

Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University, said the agenda is not only middle-of-the-road, but also modest.

"There's a lot of white space here," he said. "It's difficult to characterize as liberal or conservative because there's not very much here."

Ehrlich's Republican allies expressed optimism that the governor's plans would be adopted by a Democratic-controlled legislature. A year ago, the Assembly rejected much of the legislation proposed by a governor who had taken office weeks earlier.

Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip, said Ehrlich is better-positioned than his predecessors to make gains on the environment, community development and other areas.

"Many of these areas have been talked about for decades, but scant progress has been made," O'Donnell said. "The difference is that a Republican governor can make it happen, and walk the walk and not just talk the talk."

During the meeting, lawmakers asked the governor when he would introduce his slots bill.

"He said he was tired of talking about it," said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat. "He did say next week."

Hogan, vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said he also pressed the governor for an assurance that he would put forward a plan to raise the revenue recommended by a panel headed by former Transportation Secretary William K. Hellmann. Hogan said Ehrlich promised he would.

"I hope they get the details soon because we're running out of time," said Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Ruling out a gas tax increase leaves Ehrlich with only a few items on the "menu" of revenue choices prepared by his Transportation Department. Most prominent among them are a rise in registration fees and an increase in the titling tax from 5 percent to 6 percent.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said it will be difficult for Ehrlich to come up with $300 million a year without a gas tax increase.

"It's just very frustrating. There's no leadership here. There's a transportation crisis in this state, and he's making it worse," said Duncan, a potential Democratic challenger in 2006.

Bob Peck, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said the gas tax could find its way back onto the table before the session's end. "When you look at the other options, they look at least as politically unpalatable or they don't come close to raising as much money as we need," he said.

Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus said a registration fee increase could be acceptable to Republicans, especially if the payment schedule is changed so bills are due yearly.

Drivers of passenger vehicles now pay $81 every two years. The change Stotzfus is suggesting would mean that if the fee were raised $30 a year, as suggested by the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, drivers would have to write a $70.50 check every year.

Some leading Democrats oppose reliance on the fee because it affects infrequent drivers as much as long-distance commuters and doesn't bring in revenue from out-of-state drivers. They have warned that they will label any large increase in registration fees a "car tax."

During the meeting, Ehrlich received a blunt warning that the majority Democrats in the Senate will not bring any administration-supported revenue bills to a floor vote if he fails to deliver the support of Republican lawmakers. Democrats said that when they supported administration fee bills last year, they were criticized by Republicans for raising "taxes."

The Ehrlich agenda

Environment

Establish a Chesapeake Bay Watershed Fund to upgrade 66 large sewage-treatment plans. The $750 million to $1 billion fund would be supported by a $2.50-per-household monthly charge on sewer bills.

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