Road rage

June 11, 2007

It's a bad sign when raising the cost of a Maryland driver's license from $30 to $40 as well as some other minor and assorted Motor Vehicle Administration fees sets off as much fireworks as took place last week. Republican lawmakers seized the issue as a "hidden" tax, and Gov. Martin O'Malley put the kibosh on the MVA's plans. This ensured only that, despite the pressing needs, state road and transit projects will likely be denied about $30 million in new funding.

What piffle. E. J. Pipkin, the Eastern Shore state senator, and others like him who derided the fee increase as a back-door tax increase count on voters to have short memories. As governor, their fellow Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was a leading proponent of fee-for-service financing, and the MVA proposal merely complied with a mandate for the agency to be self-sufficient. The senator even voted for it.

What makes the episode truly bizarre is that many of these same critics support the federal Real ID law that forces the MVA to turn driver's licenses into a national ID. That unfunded federal mandate could well drive up the cost of a license to $150. Paying just $40 every five years is going to look pretty good by this time next year.

Such hypocrisy should be shrugged off, but Mr. O'Malley took it personally. Aides say Mr. O'Malley views such fees as a regressive tax that hurts low- and middle-income families, and he thinks they should be part of a broader discussion over how the state budget should be financed.

Perhaps so, but that doesn't quite explain why the O'Malley administration felt obligated to issue a press release taunting the "G-O-Fees" and their flip-flop on the issue and bragging about how the governor had rejected those evil $5 and $10 tax increases. "Constantly raising these hidden fees and taxes is not consistent with Governor O'Malley's beliefs," Steve Kearney, Mr. O'Malley's communications director, insisted, "and they are not going forward."

The reality is that the MVA proposal was not outrageous, nor was Mr. Ehrlich's desire for the MVA not to be a drain on the state's transportation trust fund. With billions of dollars in transportation projects going unfunded, the rescission is hardly helpful. And perhaps most troubling of all, this back-and-forth over small potatoes doesn't bode well for the much meatier challenge of finding a grown-up solution to the state's multibillion-dollar structural deficit - at least not without a lot of feckless political dramatics from both sides.

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