House votes to raise car fees

Ehrlich rallies GOP delegates for slim victory on transportation package

$170 million revenue proposal

Measure could face heavy rewriting in Senate

General Assembly

March 20, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Handing a crucial victory to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the House of Delegates voted by a razor-thin margin yesterday for hefty increases in vehicle registration fees to pay for transportation projects.

The 72-69 vote for the $170 million transportation revenue package came after aggressive wheedling, cajoling and arm-twisting that delivered the votes of all but two of 43 Republican delegates for a proposal many Democrats derided as a "car tax."

The vote, coupled with a vote earlier yesterday to impose an anti-pollution surcharge on water bills, showed that Ehrlich can deliver his Republican troops even on tough votes to raise revenues. It was an important win for the governor because transportation was an issue he ran on in 2002 and that his political rivals hope to turn against him in 2006.

Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, said the governor was pleased by the vote.

"He commends the House for demonstrating leadership on this issue and looks forward to working with the Senate in the coming weeks," Fawell said.

The bill could face a significant rewrite in the Senate, where President Thomas V. Mike Miller has expressed dissatisfaction with the legislation.

Of the 31 House Democrats who voted for the legislation, 14 were from Baltimore. Despite misgivings about the registration fee increases, most city delegates fell in line behind the proposal after Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan agreed to provide $17 million to study a proposed east-west mass transit route known as the Red Line.

After the vote, Baltimore Del. Maggie L. McIntosh exulted that the city had kept up its end of the bargain.

"If they did not have Baltimore City, they would not have a transportation revenue package - period," said McIntosh, a Democrat and chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch had warned Ehrlich that it would be hard to find Democratic votes for the package. He predicted the governor would need to muster about 40 of 43 Republicans to win.

Given the job of rounding up those votes was Flanagan, a former Republican delegate who tirelessly lobbied his former colleagues to support revenue increases some of them had pledged to oppose.

Flanagan said Ehrlich met with a small group of conservative Republicans who were reluctant to support the bill.

"That made a big difference to that small group," Flanagan said. "What the vote reflects is the popularity of this governor and the confidence the voters have in him."

The vote also reflects Flanagan's deal-making skills. Southern Maryland lawmakers were brought on board with a coveted highway bypass. Some Prince George's County Democrats got road projects.

Leading House Democrats said the vote was carefully calibrated to muster 72 "yes" votes - the minimum number to pass a bill, plus one for insurance.

Democratic leaders said that after years of being pounded by the GOP as the party of higher taxes, they wanted as many Republicans as possible on record in support of the increased fees.

Some Democrats contend that Ehrlich's short-term victory will be a long-time liability for the governor and his party.

Montgomery County Del. Peter Franchot, a leading Ehrlich critic, said millions of voters will be getting much higher registration bills - which are paid every other year - during the 2006 election year.

The bill raises the fee for most cars by $23.50 a year and for larger vehicles such as SUVs and pickups by $36 a year. Car owners would see the cost of their tags go from $81 to $128; SUV and pickup owners would pay $179 rather than the current $107.

"The governor may find that this legislation may torpedo his own re-election," said Franchot.

The higher registration fees will raise about half of the $300 million a year the governor agreed was needed to replenish the depleted Transportation Trust Fund.

About $250 million of that was in the bill Ehrlich submitted to the General Assembly. Two House committees whittled that to $173 million, including the registration fees and about $20 million in various Motor Vehicle Administration charges.

In the end, Anne Arundel County Dels. John R. Leopold and Herbert H. McMillan were the only Republican holdouts.

On the way into the chamber, GOP Del. Joseph R. Bartlett said he, too, would vote no, adding that his constituents "already feel they've been getting nickeled and dimed to death."

Busch said the vote was hanging in the balance when he flashed a signal to House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell that the Republicans were one vote short of the target.

He said O'Donnell went scrambling to the back of the room to find Bartlett. Busch said he held the vote open while O'Donnell jawboned the Frederick County lawmaker, then quickly closed it when Bartlett's light switched from red to green.

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