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Editorial: Of trust and trust funds

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding minced no words in its recent interim report.

“… the state’s transportation system finds itself on the verge of financial collapse unless action is taken now to change course for a new, more secure heading,” commission chairman Gus Bauman wrote in a no-nonsense cover letter to the governor and legislative leaders.

Specifically, Mr. Bauman said, “We must put the trust back in the Transportation Trust Fund. And we must replenish the depleted coffers of the trust fund. We cannot accomplish the latter without also accomplishing the former.”

If speaking truth to power is the purpose of such a commission, it has served its purpose well by telling an ugly truth that no one wants to hear at a time when governments are reeling from declining tax revenues caused by the country’s economic distress.

The timing for this message may be bad, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to shoot the messenger. It means that despite the inherent difficulties, it’s time to find a way to fix this problem.

This is not a partisan issue. Governors from both parties have raided the Transportation Trust Fund when they needed to balance their budgets without painful spending cuts or tax increases.

As a result, Maryland’s fund for transportation projects — highways, mass transit, port improvements — has been depleted while needs have grown. Now there are a number of big-ticket items, vital to the state’s economy and the quality of life of its citizens, and no way to pay for them.

While we agree with the commission’s analysis of the problem, we differ with one of the recommended solutions.

The commission’s preferred option for protecting the Transportation Trust Fund is a constitutional amendment prohibiting transferring money from the fund and spending it on other purposes. That solution is too inflexible and would tie the hands of state leaders in times of true fiscal crisis.

We do endorse the commission’s other option, a law that would require the governor and General Assembly to declare a fiscal emergency with approval of each house and a repayment schedule before any money could be taken from the transportation fund and used for other purposes.

The commission has two other recommendations for restoring public trust — and money — in the trust fund. First, it wants the portions of the sales tax and corporate income tax already designated for transportation to be kept in the fund every year. Next, it wants the state to return $350 million in diverted local road funds to local governments.

We agree. Then and only then can trust be restored that transportation funds will be used only for transportation. When that happens, the panel expressed confidence that “residents, businesses and localities” would support increases in taxes and fees which will also be needed to support transportation.

The panel is equally confident about one other outcome — what happens if we do nothing.

“One thing is clear — should Maryland dither in this contested arena, other jurisdictions assuredly will not. … Accordingly, maintaining the trust fund’s status quo is simply not an acceptable option, either short-term or long term,” Mr. Bauman told state leaders.

Sometimes the truth hurts. This is one of those times. But doing nothing will hurt more.

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