Transportation fire wall

Our view: Protecting transportation investment sounds good, but plans to make it untouchable could actually worsen budget woes

February 09, 2011

Business groups and other transportation advocates are asking lawmakers in Annapolis to build a proverbial "fire wall" around the transportation trust fund. That may sound appealing, but what's needed is something more along the lines of a split rail fence or perhaps a nice garden trellis — barriers that discourage trespassing but can be breached.

There's no question that for more than a quarter-century governors have been dipping into the trust fund — money raised by the gas tax and a variety of other sources set aside for highways, transit, airports and ports — with too much regularity. Some of the "borrowed" loot has been paid back from the general fund, but a great deal more has not.

We've stressed before the importance of adequate transportation funding. Roads, rails and runways carry the state's economic lifeblood; maintaining and expanding them where necessary prevents disrepair and gridlock. Treating the trust fund like mad money, on the other hand, puts Maryland's economy at risk in the long term.

So why not a fire wall? The argument is reminiscent of the infamous "lock box" guarantees for Social Security made by Al Gore a decade ago. What's needed is not a new law but merely the will of elected officials.

Yet legislation already introduced in the House would write the sanctity of transportation funding into the state's constitution. Admittedly, it's a proposed fire wall with escape hatches — when a governor declares a state of emergency or if all the money is repaid within five years, for instance — but those parameters would be firm.

For most foreseeable events, the exceptions are probably adequate. But lawmakers are about as likely to accurately anticipate the state's future fiscal needs as they foresaw the depth of the recent recession — which is to say, not at all.

The reason governors and legislators have been picking the trust fund's pocket in times of fiscal crisis is usually because the alternative means of balancing the budget would be worse. How many Marylanders would really prefer that hundreds of teachers be laid off from their child's school system so that certain streets could be repaved every 10 years instead of every 15?

That's not to suggest that every raid of the transportation trust fund was justified. But sometimes it's been local governments themselves that have asked for their road repair funds to be raided rather than some more permanent diversion — teacher pension costs come to mind.

Alternatively, a fire wall might cause future governors and legislatures to raise taxes or fees more readily, a poor choice in difficult financial times. Or it might simply cause them never to adequately fund transportation for fear of over-funding it.

The reality of state budgets — or any spending plan, really — is that some flexibility is required. Just as households must sometimes dip into savings or cut out non-necessities when times are tough or the unexpected happens, governments must sometimes rearrange their priorities when extraordinary economic circumstances warrant. Key strengths of Maryland's fiscal management — as opposed to, say, California's — are that state law does not present many arbitrary constraints on how much must be devoted to one priority or another, and the presence of legal mechanisms for quick adjustments in the case of fiscal emergency. That's not something we should give up.

What protection do taxpayers have against elected officials who make this choice of raiding the transportation account too readily and deferring vital infrastructure investment? It's a device mentioned at some length in the state constitution already: an "election."

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