Ehrlich ponders rollback of gas tax for relief

But such action would require legislature to reconvene


Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. suggested yesterday that he might support a partial rollback of the state's gasoline tax as a way of easing the burden of rising fuel prices, an idea he has resisted in the past.

The governor's comments on possibly easing the tax - which other officials said could not be done until the next General Assembly session, currently set for January - came at the end of a news conference on another subject and were highly conditional. Ehrlich noted that any such action would have a downside because the state's 23.5-cent gas tax is a dedicated source of funding for state and local transportation projects.

"It's not the preferred option," Ehrlich said. He ruled out any full suspension of gas tax collections, saying such a move would "throw our entire transportation program into disarray."

Nevertheless, he said his administration was studying the possible impact of making changes to the gas tax. "All options are on the table," he said.

In other statements about rising gas prices, Ehrlich said he is asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a temporary waiver of a requirement that less-polluting gasoline be used in Maryland. If Maryland received such a waiver, gas stations in the state would be allowed to sell cheaper fuels.

The governor also said he has ordered the relaxation of a rule limiting the number of hours fuel truck drivers can work in a single stretch. Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said drivers are currently limited to working 10 hours at a time and 70 hours a week. The waiver will keep the 70-hour-a-week rule but leave the number of hours in a shift up to the discretion of fuel-delivery companies.

Ehrlich's discussion of the gas tax came toward the end of a news conference called to highlight the Maryland Transit Administration's plan to put 10 new hybrid diesel-electric buses on the streets of Baltimore this spring. Ehrlich said that if the 10 prove successful in road tests, he would direct the MTA to buy more than 300 of the fuel-efficient buses over the next six years.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., a Democrat, said yesterday that the governor does not have the power to cut the gas tax without the legislature's approval, even if he were to declare an emergency. To enact a cut this year, Curran said, Ehrlich would have to call a special session.

Even then, Curran said, a cut would face serious obstacles. "That would be a real problem with our financial commitment to the bondholders," he said.

Flanagan said he had received the same advice from the attorney general. He said that as far as he knows, the administration had no disagreement with Curran's opinion.

The governor's willingness to even float the idea points to the sensitivity of the gas issue with the price of regular fuel exceeding $3 a gallon in an election year.

Last year, after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita disrupted refinery operations on the Gulf Coast and drove up gas prices, Ehrlich threw cold water on such suggestions. Adopting a position similar to Curran's, he said then that gas-tax revenues are used to secure state transportation bonds and that any rollback would require legislative action.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, declined to say whether the governor was now contemplating a special session. "There's nothing I can say to improve upon the governor's remarks," he said.

The gas-tax comments overshadowed Ehrlich's announcement that the MTA had received the 10 hybrid buses it had previously announced it would purchase. The governor arrived at the news conference aboard one of the $591,000 New Flyer buses, which reduce diesel fuel use by in effect recycling the friction from the brakes as electricity.

The governor said that if the 10 perform as expected, hybrid buses could make up more than half the MTA bus fleet by 2012.

"The bottom line for our customers is that it is cleaner, quieter and more fuel-efficient," he said. "We expect to see at least a 20 percent increase in fuel efficiency, if not more."

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