House panels alter transportation bill

Revised version may fuel push for gas tax increase

General Assembly

March 17, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Two House committees approved an increase in the state's vehicle registration fees yesterday, but excised other key revenue-producing components, including surcharges on fines for moving violations and drunken driving.

The slimmed-down version of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s transportation revenue package, expected to face a close vote on the House floor, could build pressure for a gas tax increase.

The Environmental Matters Committee voted 14-7 for the bill, while the margin in the Ways and Means Committee was 12-8. The administration achieved better-than-expected margins by holding on to the votes of all but one Republican in each committee and winning the support of Baltimore Democrats with a pledge to fund planning of an east-west transit line.

Ehrlich's original bill (HB 1467) was intended to deliver an estimated $250 million of the $300 million in additional revenue called for by a group headed by former Transportation Secretary William K. Hellmann.

Before approving the bill, committees stripped about $80 million in revenue. A provision that would have transferred $32 million in rental car tax revenue from the already-strapped general fund was killed. The surcharges on fines for moving violations and drunken driving, estimated at being worth $50 million, were removed from the bill and were referred to a committee that is expected to kill them.

The cuts left about $170 million in revenue in the governor's bill - an amount business groups insisted was not enough.

"We've always said $300 million in revenue is the floor of what you have to have go into transportation," said Devon Dodson, a spokesman for the Greater Baltimore Committee.

Len Foxwell, a spokesman for the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said the actions could open the door for an increase in the gasoline tax - supported by business groups but opposed by Ehrlich - in the Senate.

Left in the bill were miscellaneous Motor Vehicle Administration charges and the higher registration fee. It would raise the fee for smaller cars by $23.50 a year and for larger vehicles, including SUVs and pickups, by $36 a year. The fees are collected every other year, so bills would go up $47 and $72, respectively.

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