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House GOP attacks transportation revenue hikes

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland House Republicans on Tuesday attacked the Senate president’s proposals to raise new transportation revenue and to protect it from raids for other budget needs, saying the state needs better management, not more taxes. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller responded: “These people are Neanderthals in terms of their thinking.”

The GOP has been particularly critical of raising taxes on gasoline, which affects all drivers, and allocating a large portion of the proceeds to mass transit. Del. Herb McMillan, R-Anne Arundel, cited state statistics that show 83 percent of state residents drive or carpool to work, while only about 9 percent use mass transit.

“Until we realign our Transportation Trust Fund spending with the way that Marylanders travel, we shouldn’t even be discussing a gas tax increase,” McMillan said.

Republicans have criticized the Democrat-controlled General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley for adding to a large backlog in transportation projects by shifting money away from transportation to fill other budget holes during the recession and its aftermath. Democrats say much of the money has been paid back, however, Republicans note that huge amounts of local highway money have not been restored.

Part of the package Miller has proposed includes a constitutional amendment that would only allow a governor to divert money set aside for transportation during an emergency. And it would require a three-fifths vote by the Legislature to allow it. But Republicans say that would not have prevented what has happened in recent years.

“The Senate president’s bill does not protect the trust fund,” said Del. Susan Krebs, R-Carroll. “It merely codifies the continued raids that we have today.”

Miller, for his part, said House Republicans were simply being obstructionists. He said their districts have serious transportation needs that they want to have addressed.

“They want it in their hearts of hearts,” Miller said. “Every one of them wants revenues, and every one of them knows we have to pay for it, but they don’t have the political courage, guts or intestinal fortitude to vote for it. It’s as simple as that.”

Del. Andrew Serafini, R-Washington, compared the talks about raising additional revenue to children asking their parents for more money.

“If you have children that keep spending their allowance and then coming back and asking for lunch money when that’s what it was for, sooner or later you have to say ‘we cannot continue to do that,'” Serafini said.

Miller has proposed a variety of options to raise new revenue. One would allow county governments to collect up to 5 cents per gallon on gas sales for local transportation projects. That would be on top of the state’s 23.5-cents-per-gallon tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1992.

Miller also has pitched a separate 3 percent sales tax on gasoline. He also has recommended studying the idea of selling or leasing the Intercounty Connector. Another proposal would allow local transit authorities that could raise revenue for mass transit projects.

The Senate president has been urging O’Malley to take charge of a proposal of his own, but so far the governor has not. O’Malley noted the need to tackle the challenging and unpopular issue in his State of the State speech earlier this month, but he did not include specific proposals of his own.

O’Malley proposed phasing in a 6 percent sales tax on gasoline last year, but the measure languished.

“I know the governor wants to do something, but he wants to get a consensus,” Miller said. “He wants the House and the Senate and himself to agree on something before he moves forward, so that he won’t have the failure like he did last year where he threw out an idea and didn’t work to make it happen.”

Staffers for O’Malley, Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, have been meeting to discuss ideas. But Miller didn’t sound upbeat on Tuesday.

“No. Not in the least bit,” Miller said, when asked whether he was optimistic a deal could be reached this session. “I mean, I hope and pray, but it’s a tough sell.”