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Editorial: Gas tax not an ATM for state

With the two General Assembly chambers in a position to arrive at a deal to increase the state gas tax to pay for much-needed transportation upgrades, Maryland has the opportunity to stabilize, and then improve, its dreadfully subpar network of roads, bus service and rail lines.

There is a major obstacle that remains, however: ensuring that revenue from the tax hike, which will be acutely felt by businesses and, in turn, consumers, is used for its intended purpose. For decades, governors and legislatures have raided the state’s Transportation Trust Fund to help balance other areas of the budget.

The fund was created in 1971 with the goal of providing the means to construct and maintain a robust transportation network. It has failed — in no small part due to the transfer of dollars to the general fund. From 2003 to 2011 alone, roughly $1 billion in highway user revenue (theoretically earmarked for local governments to improve roads) was transferred from the trust fund.

That money has never been repaid, nor are there plans to do so.

Now, the state is playing catch-up as its drivers experience hobbling commutes and its business development efforts are hampered by prolonged neglect.

The proposal on the table could hike the gas tax by about 20 cents within the next five years, raising $3.2 billion for transportation projects. The current 23.5-cent-per-gallon tax has not been raised since 1992.

One of the components of the bill approved by the House of Delegates is that a supermajority — or three-fifths — of the members in a Senate and House of Delegates committee would be required to approve shifting transportation money to other projects or programs.

Given the political climate in Annapolis, that is little more than a rubber stamp. Del. Herbert McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican, put it this way to The Sun: “This isn’t a lockbox. It’s a wet paper bag. A hamster could bust out of this thing.”

McMillan is right. Voters and taxpayers have been putting up with these transfers for too long. If the state is going to impose a hefty tax on gasoline, it’s only right that there is a stronger assurance that drivers are going to get what they pay for, so to speak.

The General Assembly is unable to provide more stringent requirement, however, without a constitutional amendment.

The Senate has indicated a willingness to strengthen the provisions of the lockbox, but time is running short in the General Assembly to draft companion legislation (less than two weeks remain), and a constitutional amendment would be sent to the voters for final approval. These are not minor hurdles.

Without adequate protection from general fund transfers, it’s not unreasonable, given the state’s track record on trust-fund raids, to view the gas tax hike as just another nebulous money-grab.

Whether enough time remains to make the tax increase a reality this year is just as nebulous.