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Senate OKs gas tax increase

ANNAPOLIS – The Senate voted 27-20 on Friday to approve a phased-in gas tax and transit fare increase to pay for road, highway, bridge and mass transit projects.

The House of Delegates passed House Bill 1515 in a 76-63 vote last week. The Senate made no changes to the legislation, which had been heavily amended by the House Ways and Means Committee after it was introduced by Gov. Martin O’Malley this month with the firm support of House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.

After the session, Miller told reporters that it was important that Maryland decongest its crowded highways.

“We need ingress and egress to the nation’s capital,” Miller said. “It’s an economic development issue … and a quality of life issue.”

The Senate also passed a companion measure that would make it more difficult for future governors and legislatures to use gas tax revenue for non-transportation projects, programs or services.

Senate Bill 829, which passed 45-2, must still overcome a procedural hurdle to be considered by the House. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, would not definitively say whether the House would entertain S.B. 829 during the last week of the legislature’s 90-day session.

The bill, after sitting in a drawer for more than a month, was sent to the full Senate by the Budget and Taxation Committee after business groups advocated for stronger protection of transportation money.

Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, an Upper Shore Republican, was one of two senators to vote against the “lockbox” bill, which would amend Maryland’s Constitution to prevent shifting of transportation money for other uses unless the governor declared a fiscal state of emergency and a supermajority of both houses of the legislature voted to approve the shift.

“It’s a marketing gimmick,” Pipkin said in an interview. “This is the fig leaf that covers the gas tax. I wasn’t going to give cover to it.”

He said the gas tax bill – which would increase gas prices by about 4 cents this summer and by as much as 20 cents by 2017, adding more than $600 million a year to the Transportation Trust Fund – was “horrific” and that the only reason it passed was because of its apparent ties to a separate bill to fund the renovation of Baltimore public schools.

“That’s where a lot of the marginal votes came from,” Pipkin said. The school bill, H.B. 860, passed the Senate 40-7. The House need only approve a technical amendment before the bill goes to Gov. Martin O’Malley for his signature.

Miller said during the Senate debate that he did not want to make any changes to the transportation bill so the Senate could avoid having to send it back for another vote in the House. Democratic leaders successfully turned back 13 amendments to the bill.

The Senate also passed S.B. 90, legislation that was gutted and rewritten by the Budget and Taxation Committee this week in order to devote half-a-percent of gas tax revenue to the Waterway Improvement Fund.

The bill, which passed 46-0 on Friday, convinced Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore County and Harford County, to withdraw an amendment that would have added similar language to the gas tax bill. Del. John A. Olszewski Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, offered a similar amendment in the House that failed by a relatively slim margin.

With no changes made to the transportation funding bill, it now goes to O’Malley to sign into law. In a statement, the governor praised the legislature and said the tax increases would crate 57,000 jobs “and build a 21st century transportation network.”