Many motorists rushing in and out of the busy Motor Vehicle Administration office in Glen Burnie yesterday were unaware that the state was raising vehicle registration fees today to fund long-delayed road projects.
The increases, approved by the General Assembly in the spring and signed into law by the governor, boost the biennial fees for passenger cars from $81 to $128, and for sport utility vehicles and trucks from $108 to $180.
"It's ridiculous," said Gloria Hargett, 58, who said she holds down two health-care jobs to make ends meet. "I'm a widow. I don't really have money. You have to scrimp and save to keep your car on the road."
The higher registration fees were among 127 laws passed by the General Assembly this year that take effect today.
Change the name of the Baltimore Zoo to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, reflecting a beefed-up guarantee of state assistance.
Require the state schools superintendent to monitor more closely finances of local school boards, a change stemming from the Baltimore City schools fiscal crisis this year.
Require companies that have set up shell holding companies in Delaware and other states to avoid corporate income taxes in Maryland to begin paying those taxes.
But unlike most other laws, the vehicle fee will hit Marylanders in their pockets.
Many have begun paying the higher costs through renewal notices mailed weeks ago for tags that expire this month.
Taxi driver Henry J. King, who endures gnarled roads and snarled traffic as he traverses the Baltimore region, said he's reluctant to pay the extra $47.
"That's a big increase," said King, 49, as he left the MVA offices on Ritchie Highway yesterday, where he stopped for a copy of his driving record. "I could see maybe a $5 or $10 increase. But $50? That's a lot. I think a lot of people will be complaining."
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. determined that the levy was preferable to other options for boosting the state's Transportation Trust Fund, such as an increase in gasoline or vehicle titling taxes.
A recent task force identified $16 billion in necessary road and transit projects, said state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. The registration fee will generate $157 million yearly, and a separate MVA miscellaneous fee law will produce $20 million, to help the state embark on $11 billion in construction, Flanagan said.
"The increased revenue is dedicated to projects that will improve highway safety and improve traffic congestion," Flanagan said, adding that a recent study by the Texas Transportation Institute found that Maryland motorists spent an average of $455 year on fuel, vehicle wear and tear, and lost productivity because of congestion.
Still, Democrats call the registration fee increases a thinly disguised tax and say that Ehrlich should abandon his rhetoric that he has not raised taxes during his term.
The state Democratic Party and the state's largest public employees union plan to distribute anti-Ehrlich literature today at MVA offices in Baltimore, Glen Burnie and Annapolis.
Today also marks the start of the state's fiscal year, and a variety of new taxes are taking effect.
For the first time, residents of states without income taxes but who earn money in Maryland will have to pay a 1.25 percent tax on earnings to the state. Maryland expects to collect about $28 million yearly through the charge on out-of-state residents.
Lawmakers also agreed to assess corporate incomes taxes on companies that shift assets to Delaware and other states that do not assess levies against income earned through intellectual property such as patents and trademarks.
"Even though we had won court cases, the legislation codifies those victories, and says from here on out, you no longer can shelter taxes from the state of Maryland," said Michael Golden, a spokesman for Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who pushed the bill.
Ehrlich irritated Schaefer by letting the loophole-closing bill become law without his signature and by declining to veto a related bill that granted companies amnesty for taxes owed before 1985. Yesterday, the comptroller's office distributed details of the amnesty program, which will prevent the state from collecting about $80 million.
Other new laws that go on the books today create a Cabinet-level disabilities office in state government and require utility companies to use renewable fuel sources to produce some of their energy.
An Ehrlich initiative to offer drug and alcohol treatment instead of jail time to nonviolent offenders also becomes reality.
The program will "alleviate overcrowding in state correctional facilities and put nonviolent offenders back on the path to becoming responsible and productive citizens in our communities," said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver.
Increases for two-year vehicle registrations fees starting today:
Passenger cars: from $81 to $128.
Sport utility vehicles and trucks: from $108 to $180.