Put 'trust' back in Transportation Trust Fund [Letter]

September 15, 2014

A proposed state constitutional amendment creating a firewall for the Transportation Trust Fund will be on the ballot this fall, and while the legislation is flawed, it deserves voter support. The legislation (Senate Bill 829 of 2013) received bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.

The proposed amendment provides that transportation revenue can be transferred to the general fund only if the governor by executive order declares a fiscal emergency and the General Assembly by a three-fifths vote concurs. An existing state statute provides that these funds cannot be diverted to the general fund unless legislation is enacted prior to the diversion that repays the trust fund within five years. While incorporating this statutory language in the constitutional amendment is preferable, its omission is not fatal to the needed passage of the proposed amendment.

Ten years ago, I sponsored the first TTF firewall legislation, and similar bills were introduced in succeeding years. The impetus for these bills was the transfer of millions of dollars over several decades from the TTF to the general fun to help balance the state's operating budget and the broken promise to citizens to use transportation dollars strictly for transportation purposes. While millions of diverted transportation trust fund dollars have been repaid to the fund, local highway user revenue that was earmarked for counties, municipalities and Baltimore City was not repaid.

The constitutional amendment legislation is flawed because there is still no firewall for local highway user revenues and revenue collected from fuel and titling taxes can still be diverted before they enter the trust fund. The practical reality, however, is that in most years, revenues have been diverted prior to being deposited in the TTF, and citizens should be reasonably confident that the proposed constitutional firewall for the fund will serve its intended purpose.

Prior to the recent recession, local governments received 30 percent of transportation revenue, but the legislature recently reduced that percentage to 9.6 percent for fiscal year 2014 and future years. The counties, municipalities and Baltimore City will be receiving a small piece of the pie, thus exacerbating an already difficult situation with more needed local transportation projects being deferred because of a lack of money.

In light of the recent gas tax increases motorists are paying, it is imperative that the legislature be required to vote by a three-fifths majority on a governor's declaration of a fiscal emergency. While emergency transfers to balance the budget over the past several decades have had a rational underpinning, the proposed constitutional amendment offers an important first step to help restore "trust" in the Transportation Trust Fund.

John R. Leopold, Pasadena

The writer is a former county executive of Anne Arundel County.

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