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Assembly in no hurry on gas tax

ANNAPOLIS – The governor’s proposal to extend the sales tax to gasoline will likely linger until the waning days of the General Assembly session, top Democrats said Tuesday.

Many legislators were “caught unaware” by the size of plan announced on a Monday morning radio program by Gov. Martin O’Malley, said Del. Sheila Hixson, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, which handles tax issues.

“It’s pretty stunning,” said Hixson, D-Montgomery.

Hixson and House Speaker Michael E. Busch said their chamber would clear another major fiscal issue from their plates before turning to the gas tax.

“We, in the House of Delegates, are focused on the budget,” said Busch, D-Anne Arundel. “There’s a $1.1 billion shortfall. We’ll be working diligently on getting the budget balanced before we see if there’s any support for new revenue.”

Last year, the General Assembly passed the budget April 4, just one week before the end of the 90-day legislative session. Lawmakers did, however, ram through a sales tax hike on alcohol beverages in the final hours of the session.

O’Malley, a Democrat, will address his proposal Wednesday during his State of the State address. On Monday, he said he would push legislation that would phase in the 6 percent sales tax on gasoline over three years.

That would add about 6 cents to a gallon of gas per year, for a total of 18 cents in the third year, based on Tuesday’s average of $3.50 for regular.

When fully implemented, the sales tax on gasoline would bring in an estimated $613 million per year.

“It’s going to be an extremely tough sell,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s. “I hope to work with him as best as I possibly can to make it happen, but it’s going to be difficult.”

Miller touted the plan’s revenue-raising potential and the fact that a shift away from the traditional flat gasoline tax – it has been 23.5 cents since 1992 – would mean the state’s take would rise with the price of gasoline.

But, he acknowledged, that would make revenues hard to predict, given recent volatility in fuel prices.

“We’re subject to the whims and caprice of these Middle Eastern czars and the refiners and Big Oil,” he said. “It’s hard for households to budget. It’s certainly hard for states to budget.”

Republican lawmakers reacted strongly against the proposal and took the opportunity to once again paint the governor as a tax-and-spender.

“This is too much for the citizens of the state,” said Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, the No. 2 Republican in the House. “Part of the reason there’s not enough money in the [Transportation Trust Fund] is he (O’Malley) has been borrowing from it” to balance the budget.

Busch and Miller made it clear there remains work to do on the lobbying front to muster enough Democratic votes – 71 in the House, 24 in the Senate – to pass a transportation funding package.

The governor is “going to have to meet with the [county] delegations and explain why this is the best solution and why we need to move forward,” said Miller. “It’s his proposal, he’s the governor of the state and he needs to make his case to the elected officials. He’s not going to be able to convince the electorate why it’s the best thing for them.”

Said Busch: “I don’t see anything happening without the support of the county executives in Montgomery, Prince George’s and Howard counties and the mayor of Baltimore City.”

Raquel Guillory, the governor’s spokeswoman, said those officials support O’Malley’s sales tax on gasoline proposal.

O’Malley also began on Tuesday dangling transportation projects that “could be impacted” by an increase in transportation funding.

His official blog highlighted one from each county, including the Red Line light-rail project in Baltimore, an extension of the MARC Penn line through Cecil County into Delaware, widening Route 32 in Carroll County and a new bridge in Calvert County. His staff also set up posters of schematics, photos and renderings of the projects in the lobby between the galleries of the Senate and House chambers.

“We knew of specific projects, projects that could move forward,” said Guillory. “It’s very easy to point to these projects.”