Panel passes vehicle tag rise

Senate likely to approve transportation measure

Bill to raise $165.5 million a year

It falls short of Ehrlich goal to raise $300 million

General Assembly

April 06, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A Senate committee decided yesterday to go along with the House of Delegates' version of a transportation revenue bill, leaving Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. well short of his goal of raising $300 million a year for roads and mass transit projects.

Sen. Ulysses Currie, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said he would bring a $165.5 million-a-year bill - relying primarily on an increase in vehicle registration fees - to the Senate floor without changes.

The committee approved his plan unanimously, a sign the full Senate is likely to go along with a strategy to keep the transportation bill from becoming entangled with other issues in the waning days of a contentious legislative session.

In particular, the panel decided against challenging the House's decision to cut the administration's proposed surcharges on moving violations and drunken driving offenses out of the bill.

Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat, said he does not expect any further transportation revenues to emerge from the General Assembly in other legislation this year.

"What we see in here is what we will likely get," he said.

What Maryland motorists will likely get is a hefty increase in the amount they pay every other year to register their vehicles.

The $23.50 yearly increase for smaller passenger vehicles will take registration bills from $81 to $128. Owners of most pickup trucks, minivans and sport utility vehicles, whose fees will rise $36 a year, will see bills go from $107 to $179.

Those increases, plus larger ones for heavier vehicles, will raise about $150 million a year. The rest of the money in the bill will come from miscellaneous Motor Vehicle Administration fees.

A commission headed by former Transportation Secretary William K. Hellmann recommended last year that the state raise $300 million a year over the next six years to replenish its depleted Transportation Trust Fund. The panel said that is what is needed to meet two-thirds of the state's transportation needs.

The legislation approved yesterday gives the administration a little more than half its goal. But it was enough for Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan to make a cautious declaration of victory.

"It will boost our transportation effort," he said. "We will be using that money to advance very important transportation projects in every corner of the state."

By Flanagan's calculation, the administration will succeed in raising $238 million of the $300 million recommended by the commission.

He comes to that figure by including $54 million in higher projections of existing revenue and higher estimates of what the legislation will yield.

Business groups that had backed the Hellmann recommendation expressed relief that the legislation was approved and disappointment that it fell short of their goals.

Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said the money in the bill will move some projects forward but is "woefully short of what we hoped for." He predicted transportation funding will be an important issue in the next gubernatorial campaign.

Len Foxwell, spokesman for the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said the state needs "a minimum of $300 million to fully address our state's congestion crisis."

"We're going to have to come back next year and see if we can get more money," Foxwell said.

Flanagan, however, said it is unlikely that the administration will come forward with new transportation revenue proposals over the next couple of years.

The Ehrlich administration didn't propose a revenue package until a month into the legislative session. Under pressure from Republican lawmakers and car dealers, it rejected proposals to raise money through a higher gas tax or an increase in titling taxes.

Even with a stripped-down package based on fees, the administration had to pull out all the stops to win narrow approval of the legislation in the House, where Democrats labeled the fee increases a "car tax."

Ehrlich and Flanagan faced an early disadvantage because of a perception among urban lawmakers that the administration was hostile toward mass transit. They overcame that by making a series of commitments to transit projects in the Baltimore and Washington areas.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, chairman of the Baltimore Senate delegation, said he believes the commitment he received from the administration goes beyond the planning money for the east-west Red Line promised to the House delegation.

He said he expects it to be a rail line, not a bus project.

"We have an understanding," the Democratic lawmaker said.

Assembly on baltimoresun.com

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Read the text of proposed legislation, including the Senate slots bill, SB 197; the budget bill, SB 125; the living-wage bill, SB 621; the flush tax, HB 292.

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