ANNAPOLIS — County and city leaders from four of Maryland’s largest jurisdictions pressed Tuesday for the General Assembly to add 10 cents to the state’s gasoline tax, but the measure could be put on hold as uncertainty in the Middle East drives gas prices skyward.
The local support, however, is significant because leaders in the House of Delegates have looked to the county executives to lobby their delegations to vote for the tax increase and other funding mechanisms that could bring in another $471 million next year.
“When it comes to funding for transportation, we are running on empty,” said Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
In the past two years, the state took a total of $674 million in transportation funding once earmarked for counties and cities and used it to patch holes in its own budget. Gov. Martin O’Malley has proposed a similar measure for fiscal 2012.
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman could once count on $16 million in transportation aid from the state. In the last two years, the state’s check hasn’t topped $500,000. Ulman said his county hasn’t budgeted any money for road maintenance.
“Those are the kinds of things you can do for a couple of years and be OK, but if you go on longer than that, you’re talking about major costs to rebuild roads,” he said.
Ulman said a provision in the bill that would offer a constitutional amendment up for voter approval that would protect transportation dollars from budgetary raids is critical to the local support for the rest of the legislation. SB 714 and HB 1001 would raise the gas tax to 33.5 cents from 23.5 cents — diesel would go to 34.5 cents from 24.5 cents — and then index the tax to inflation. The bills would also increase vehicle registration fees by 50 percent.
Ulman and Rawlings-Blake were joined at the House Ways and Means Committee hearing by Rushern Baker III of Prince George’s County, and Montgomery’s Isiah Leggett.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said he has not seen “a whole lot of appetite” for the gas tax recently, and added the pieces of the legislation that raise fees stand a better chance.
“To raise the gas tax while prices are rising the way they are is very hard for legislators,” Busch said.
The average gallon of gas in Maryland climbed from $3.08 one month ago to $3.34 Tuesday, according to AAA.
“I certainly could move forward this year, but I get the sense the body wants to wait and see what happens to our sources of petroleum,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said.
The transportation funding bill enjoys the support of the state’s largest business interests and transportation advocates, including the Greater Baltimore Committee, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, and AAA Mid-Atlantic.
GBC President and CEO Donald C. Fry called the issue “one of our most significant economic development challenges over the next 10 years.”
“Mobility is an essential part of economic growth,” he said. “You have to be able to move people, goods and services. If you can’t do that, you’ll find there won’t be any investment.”
And while many construction firms turned out Tuesday to argue for the tax increase and the boon to transportation spending it would bring, more than 40 truckers drove in a convoy around the legislative campus before voicing their opposition.
The fuel tax increase would cost truckers an additional $2,000 a year for every vehicle on the road, said Mel Fair, vice president of fleet sales for the Beltway Cos., a truck dealer and leasing firm with six Maryland locations. That jump would be passed on to consumers, and push drivers to fuel up before they enter the state and after they leave, he added
“Your loaf of bread, your furniture, your gallon of milk, it’s going to cost you more,” Fair said. “This is the backbone of the American economy.”
The registration increase for trucks would bump the annual fee from $1,800 to $2,700.
“We’ll move our companies to another state to avoid the registration increase,” Fair said of the industry.
House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, however, said the legislature heard similar threats 19 years ago, the last time the gas tax was increased.
“Whenever we do this, various segments of the business community say they will be driven out of business if this happens,” the Montgomery County Democrat said. “It didn’t happen in 1992 and 1993.”