Testifying in favor of a gas-tax hike and increased fees are… (Perna, Algerina, Baltimore…)
Arguing that Marylanders will face a proliferation of potholes without more state money to repair local roads, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and three county executives urged lawmakers Tuesday to support a 10-cent-a-gallon increase in the gas tax.
Rawlings-Blake joined County Executives Ken Ulman of Howard County, Ike Leggett of Montgomery County and Rushern Baker of Prince George's County in endorsing an increase in the state's 23.5-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax as long as the money goes to local jurisdictions and isn't used to balance the state's budget.
The local government leaders want the increase coupled with a restoration of state road repair money to their jurisdictions and a constitutional amendment that would protect the Transportation Trust Fund from the type of "raids" that have been used in recent years to close shortfalls in the general fund.
Rawlings-Blake said the city is stretched to the breaking point on road and bridge projects. "When it comes to funding for transportation, we are running on empty," the mayor said.
The mayor and all three county executives are Democrats representing four of the "Big Seven" Maryland counties. Two Republican county executives, John Leopold of Anne Arundel and David Craig of Harford, did not testify. Nor did Baltimore County's Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat.
Like the leaders of Maryland's smaller jurisdictions, the mayor and county executives are grappling with severe cutbacks in the amount of local highway money the state sends to local governments each year. Baltimore's highway aid has been cut nearly in half, while the counties have lost about 97 percent of their highway money over the past two years.
The four local leaders testified Tuesday in the hope of averting a third straight year of deep cuts envisioned in the budget Gov. Martin O'Malley sent to the General Assembly.
House fiscal leaders have signaled that they would consider raising the gas tax, which has not increased since 1992, if the leaders of county governments would take the lead in calling for the increase.
The bill the officials endorsed Tuesday, sponsored by Del. C. William Frick, D-Montgomery, would couple the gas tax increase with a rise in vehicle registration fees and indexation of the gas tax to a measure of inflation in the cost of construction. The measure would also place a constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot creating a firewall that would put the Transportation Trust Fund off-limits for transfers to the general fund except in the case of an emergency. It would take a three-fifths vote of the legislature to declare such an emergency.
Frick told the Ways and Means Committee that "we need to put the trust back in the trust fund."
The provisions of the bill largely reflect recommendations made by a blue-ribbon commission on transportation funding, which estimated that the state needs about $850 million in additional revenue each year just to keep the current transportation infrastructure maintained. The bill would provide about two-thirds of the revenue called for by the panel.
The county executives and mayor called for a restoration of the highway users funds to the level in fiscal year 2008, when the counties received about a 30 percent share of the money from the transportation fund.
Baker told the lawmakers that he didn't feel it was right to come to the legislature for more aid without supporting a means to pay for it.
"We're saying we're in it with you," he said.
Ulman noted that the diversions from local highway aid in recent years had totaled more than $1 billion statewide. He said that each year road work is put off, the more expensive it is to repair the pavement.
"Once you get past a couple years, the road network, the bridge network really start to deteriorate," he said.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Annapolis Democrat, said he admires the four for standing up for the need for transportation revenue but added that the prospects for a gas tax increase are dimmer since the price of gasoline rose 20 cents in four days.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a supporter of a gas tax increase, said it was important that the mayor and executives had endorsed the measure. But he expressed skepticism whether the votes were there to support a higher tax at a time when turmoil in Libya is pushing up crude oil prices on world markets.
"I think my members are very concerned about what's going on in the Middle East and the price of gas," the Calvert County Democrat said.
The executives faced skeptical questioning from some members of the committee, several of whom expressed concern that the increase could have a negative effect on business. Republicans on the panel signaled that they could support the constitutional firewall but not the increased taxes and fees.
But some of the state's top business leaders told the panel increased transportation revenues are desperately needed.