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Trying to keep up with Virginia

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Gov. Martin O'Malley and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., discussing the transportation revenue proposal.

In the rush to get news of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s gas tax proposals into Tuesday’s paper, a few details of last night’s unveiling had to go unaddressed.

It was thought that after the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that raised taxes to pay for transportation projects, Democratic leaders in Maryland would be forced to try to muscle through a plan of their own. House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch admitted last week Virginia’s action made the issue more urgent.

Monday night, he and Gov. Martin O’Malley both said that the complicated transportation revenue package was as much about relieving congestion in metropolitan areas as it was about remaining competitive with Virginia.

“Virginia, which is a very conservative state, just passed a transportation program,” said Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. “If we’re to compete with the job market, we need to compete with transportation plans.”

The plans are similar in some ways. Both would require a tax on wholesale gasoline purchases, but O’Malley’s proposal — crafted through private meetings with the speaker, president and staff — keeps in place the per-gallon gasoline tax that has stood at 23.5-cents since 1992. The legislation would lower that to 18.5-cents a gallon, but make it inflation sensitive. Both states also are hoping the U.S. Congress passed legislation that would allow states to collect taxes on Internet sales.

O’Malley acknowledged Virginia’s role in the planning, saying his bill was “informed partly by theirs.”

The question is whether Maryland conservatives will follow the lead of Virginia Republicans, who clenched their teeth and agreed to raise taxes to address transportation woes. Initially, it appears leading Democrats will have to round up almost all of the votes from their own caucus.

It won’t be easy, but Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, said Monday night he, Busch and O’Malley showed last fall what the trio could do when they worked in concert. Several contentious issues publicly supported by the three men went to voters for final approval on Nov. 6, where Marylanders upheld their elected leaders’ decisions.