Highway robbery

Our view: State proposal to take $30 million from city transportation account demonstrates Annapolis' law of the jungle: When times are tough, eat the poor

March 15, 2010

Amid the clamor in Annapolis to find ways to reduce spending, it's not surprising that Baltimore's share of transportation aid has drawn state lawmakers' attention like hungry lions eyeing a wounded zebra. But a proposal to cut $30 million in city aid, not to help balance the state budget but to enrich more affluent jurisdictions, demonstrates how nature's carnivores have nothing on the predators in Annapolis.

Such blatant theft would surely make the Sheriff of Nottingham proud. Taking so-called Highway Users Revenue from Baltimore and giving it to the counties is nothing short of stealing from the poor to benefit the rich. With a potential $2 billion deficit looming next year, state spending needs to be cut, but that doesn't mean legislators should be harder on the city than local governments with fiscal problems nowhere near so dire.

There's no question that Baltimore receives a disproportionate share of transportation funds under the highway users formula. That's largely due to the fact that the city is responsible for all its roads and bridges (aside from I-895 and I-95 tunnels and highways that are operated by the Maryland Transportation Authority), unlike the counties, where the State Highway Administration handles many of the major thoroughfares.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has proposed the city receive $130 million of the $140 million total in the next fiscal year. Such lopsided budgeting can be traced to the days when the city had an overwhelming share of Maryland's transportation assets. That's less true today, although Baltimore still has far more - and more expensive - infrastructure to maintain than any county.

But over time, the formula has developed a second purpose - as a modest form of revenue sharing. The definition of transportation has gradually expanded so that the city has been able to use the money for such things as police, school crossing guards and cleaning up streets and alleys.

That's not a sign that Baltimore's transportation needs have lessened. Rather, it demonstrates how desperate its unfunded, nontransportation needs have grown. City bridges and overpasses remain among the lowest rated in the state for structural integrity, but Baltimore also needs to maintain its funding for schools and police without raising Maryland's highest property tax rate.

Cut the city's transportation funds by $30 million, and the city's projected budget deficit grows to $150 million. To make up the added shortfall, Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake would need to either reduce services (leave 4,500 tons of rubbish on the streets and cut traffic patrols in half, for instance) or raise the property tax by 9 cents, an even more horrifying possibility.

But what truly adds insult to injury is that the $30 million would not be used to help balance the state budget but would be spread like so much pirated plunder from Ellicott City to Easton on counties that don't face a fraction of the economic hardships and poverty of Baltimore.

That makes the proposal not only unwise but bordering on immoral. Forcing the city to bear a greater burden of budget reductions will undermine efforts to make the city less dependent on state aid in the long term - even as hard-fought efforts to revitalize schools and neighborhoods are on the upswing.

There was a time when stealing so large a sum from the city would have been regarded as unthinkable, at least by Democrats - not only because of Baltimore's political influence (diminished by its shrinking population) but also because preying on the less fortunate was considered beyond the pale even in the State House.

If lawmakers were serious about balancing the budget, they'd be making the hard choices - addressing billion-dollar teacher pension contributions or unsustainable retiree health care costs. Or perhaps taking on the liquor lobby over the state's embarrassingly low alcohol tax. But that's probably too much to expect from predators who see far easier prey right under their noses.

Readers respond
Even by Sun standards that is an amazing piece. Giving Baltimore $130 million out of a $140 million fund is "modest revenue sharing"? Not giving Baltimore all of its annual gift from the counties has turned into an immoral theft? Tax money that is spent in the counties in which it was paid is "pirated plunder"? Wow.


Baltimore faces economic hardships because the citizens are not motivated to learn but wait for government handouts.

Let the bridges fall down and cut the police force. Then, hopefully, everyone will move out, and the capitalists from the suburbs will purchase the city and revitalize it during the next credit boom.

Rob Bowersox

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