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C. Fraser Smith: Pain at the pump and elsewhere

“They tell me it’ll kill me, but they won’t say when.”

-Old blues song

Gov. Martin O’Malley has been trying to get legislators focused on the killing potential of delay, but he’s had about as much success as warnings about cocaine addiction. (See above)

He wants the assembly to ratify his proposal to apply the state’s 6 percent sales tax to the price of gasoline. We need the money to maintain the road system.

But, because his audience is addicted to winning re-election, he gets few takers.

You may have noticed prices at the pump drifting up toward $4 or even $5 a gallon. It gets your attention. So the governor’s being urged to hold off. Politicians usually don’t like to upset us with the truth, like the cost of delay.

What the governor is doing is called leadership and responsibility and concern for the future of the state.

What he’s doing is educational. The world has changed. And it’s gotten older.

Roads and bridges have to be maintained, or we’ll be driving our SUVs over once-majestic spans that give up the ghost, writhing and waving and tossing cars into the river.

We are told we shouldn’t have to pay for roadway improvements now because gas prices are going up. We understand the politics of that position. It is truly painful to see so much money flying into the gas tank every week. Actually, of course, the price of a car-driven world includes the cost of road and bridge maintenance.

And who thinks we’re going to see lower gas prices any time soon? What real leader would suggest there will be a time when it’s politically safe to raise the money we need to do what must be done?

O’Malley out front

O’Malley’s arguments are beyond strong.

The tax on gasoline hasn’t been raised in 20 years. “No business would survive if the price of its product had to stay fixed at the level in 1992,” he observes.

He said he doesn’t want his kids to ask why he didn’t do something about aging bridges when he had a chance to make the argument at least.

A full-blown infrastructural overhaul, he predicts, would give Maryland 19,000 construction jobs over a few years. The Maryland Chamber of Commerce, no tax-lover, stands with him on this one. Business knows its bread is buttered with macadam.

O’Malley’s been hammered in some quarters – Democrat and Republican – for not-so-hidden political aspirations of the presidential variety. He’s been called an absentee governor because he’s seen so often these days on television as a Democratic Party spokesman.

What he’s doing on the gas tax, though, weakens the absentee argument. He could easily take a pass in the current climate. Few would fault him.

But don’t we really hate it when political leaders duck the hard ones? Shouldn’t we like the risk-takers – particularly when they’re risking their own political well-being?

Not the right time — again?

Can we wait a few more years or decades before we step to the costs of maintaining roads and bridges? Are those costs going to come down?

At a hearing before House of Delegates committees Wednesday, a businessman recalled earlier efforts by earlier governors to raise the gas tax.

We can’t, it was said each time. Guess why? Not the right time. Gas prices were rising.

But, eager to re-assert the assembly’s decision to delay yet again, a delegate from Western Maryland told the governor that gas prices are sending gas pumps into tilt. After she pumped $75 worth into her Tahoe even without the increase, the pump shut down.

Do you know she had to re-set the pump and start over?

“Cocaine, cocaine, Running all through my brain.”

See above.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.