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Little trust in transportation fund

Republicans in the House of Delegates have decided the state needs no new money for transportation projects — but they say it does need a lock-and-key for what remains in its Transportation Trust Fund.

“Maryland does not need a gas tax (increase),” Minority Whip Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio said Tuesday. “We can solve the transportation problem with better management.”

Republicans met with reporters Tuesday to demonstrate that only a small numbers of Marylanders use mass transit — just 8.8 percent, they said — while 83.4 percent of state residents drive a car or ride in a carpool. Despite those percentages, 57 percent of Maryland transportation money is spent on mass transit. If the formula was tilted toward the needs of a majority of residents, Republicans say, there would be plenty of money.

The GOP argument is flavored by a distaste for any kind of tax increase, which delegates in the minority party say ordinary Marylanders cannot afford. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., author of the only bills this year that would raise transportation money for the state, had a different interpretation of the Republican argument.

“These people are Neanderthals in terms of their thinking,” said Miller, a Democrat who represents part of Calvert and Prince George’s counties. “Republicans represent rural areas that need money for transportation, need money for bridges, need money for roads and we need to move forward. They want it in their hearts of hearts. 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. They’re afraid of losing the primary. They’re putting their political career ahead of the state. Its not statesmanship, its political gamesmanship, and we need less of that in the federal government and we need less of that in the state.”

Miller went on to praise Republicans in the Senate, which he said might get on board with a transportation plan if he could arrange it in such a way that rural counties did not have to pay for mass transit projects in Baltimore or the Washington, D.C., suburbs. The Senate’s minority leader, E.J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore, suggested such a plan.

“The Republican senators are much wiser than their House counterparts,” Miller said.

But Del. Herbert H. McMillan, R-Anne Arundel, said the issue isn’t a lack of wisdom — it’s a lack of trust. The Transportation Trust Fund was raided out of desperation as the economy soured and state revenue decreased in the last half-dozen years. Though much money has been returned to the account, local highway money has not.

Meanwhile, the state’s leadership wants to use what money it does have to build mass transit lines and raise taxes on drivers to pay for the multi-billion dollar projects.

“I haven’t heard a peep about raising the amount of money people using mass transit pay,” McMillan said. “This is an agency … that has its priorities way out of whack.”

Miller wasn’t buying any of that on Tuesday, a day before his proposals were scheduled for a hearing in the Budget and Taxation Committee.

“They’re elected by the people,” he said of House Republicans. “They have the right to say what they want to, even as nonsensical as it is.”

Miller has become frustrated in recent weeks by a lack of new developments in the transportation debate. He’s put the issue squarely on the shoulders of Gov. Martin O’Malley, who tried two ideas last year that did not receive a favorable reaction from lawmakers.

“I think the governor is kind of in the same position as the House Republicans are right now,” Miller said. “What I’m saying is, the governor would like to find a way to let someone else make this thing happen.”

Does Miller trust that the House, Senate and O’Malley will come to an agreement to raise money?

“Not in the least bit,” he said. “I hope and pray, but it’s a tough sell.”