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Md. business allies split over gas tax

Maryland’s business groups have dug in opposing sides of the gas tax debate, prompting early sniping between advocates that are most often allies.

Transportation funding has emerged as one of the top issues for the General Assembly, one that could see a major push this fall when lawmakers return to redraw congressional districts or during their regular session in 2012.

The most prominent business organizations in the state have backed a gas tax hike as a step to cars, trains and trucks moving, and businesses growing.

But Kim Burns, president of Maryland Business for Responsive Government, called the notion of lockstep support for a tax increase among the private sector “ludicrous.”

“These are tough times,” Burns said in a written statement. “Gas is already over $4.00 a gallon and it is likely only going to go higher — and that’s without any state tax increase.”

Her statement, which came in response to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s assessment on Friday that the gas tax enjoys universal support among the business community, singled out the Maryland Chamber of Commerce for sitting on a state commission studying the gas tax and other revenue options. She quoted a business owner, Ted Shaw, of Crown Foods Inc., who said the chamber is “selling out.”

The chamber’s head dismissed the “potshots” in an interview Tuesday.

“I appreciate that there are differences of opinion, but if our infrastructure is not maintained and upgraded, we’re going to have a very serious problem here in Maryland,” said Kathleen T. Snyder, chamber president and CEO.

The Blue Ribbon Commission for Maryland Transportation Funding, which included Snyder and her counterpart at the Greater Baltimore Committee, Donald C. Fry, estimates the state needs an influx of $800 million a year to keep up with maintenance and expansion of highways, bridges, tunnels and transit networks,

According to the commission, raising the gas tax 10 cents and indexing it to inflation would bring in an additional $385 million, while raising driver license fees, transit fares, and other fees would bring in far less.

Opponents of the gas tax and other revenue boosting options examined by the commission also drew battle lines between big and small.

“Our members are not the utilities, they’re not the insurance companies. They’re the small business owners, up and down Main Street,” said Ellen Valentino, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “The high gasoline costs right now are hurting our members”

The chamber and the GBC have long supported the gas tax hike while lobbying against most, if not all, others. They have seen their efforts falter as gas prices spiked due to conflicts abroad and disasters at home.

GBC President and CEO Fry, a former lawmaker, said “one thing you can’t do is time gas tax increases just like you can’t time the stock market.”

The state’s gas tax has been held at 23.5 cents per gallon since 1992. The federal levy has been 18.4 cents since 1993.

Gas tax receipts in Maryland have fallen every year since 2007 — the beginning of the recession — as drivers cut down on their time in the cars and switched to more fuel efficient vehicles.

“Not every single business is going to support a gas tax increase, but I think … the business organizations who have studied the issues and recognize the challenges that are facing the state in this area have indicated their support,” Fry said.