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House less interested in locking up trust fund

ANNAPOLIS — A week has passed since the General Assembly approved gas tax and transit fare hikes to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund, which analysts say would be otherwise bereft of money for new construction projects by mid-2017.

But companion legislation passed by the Senate that would make it significantly more difficult for lawmakers to spend fund money for non-transportation purposes has still not cleared the first of several procedural hurdles in the House of Delegates, stoking fears among advocates that Senate Bill 829 will die when the legislature adjourns Monday at midnight.

Kathleen T. Snyder, president and CEO of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said persuading the House to approve SB 829 would be the business group’s top priority in the final days of the legislature’s annual 90-day session. The bill would prohibit transportation money from being reallocated unless the governor declared a fiscal emergency and three-fifths of the Senate and House approved use of the trust fund.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said he thought the bill would be sprung from the Rules and Executive Nominations Committee. But some say the legislation would not move much further.

Some lawmakers say there is little enthusiasm for the bill among much of the House’s Democratic leadership, and that a strong push wasn’t being mounted by Senate leaders to get the House to consider the bill in the session’s waning days.

“It’s not unexpected, because the House has not been in favor in the past of a constitutional amendment,” Snyder said. “Obviously, we’re running out of time.”

The state last dipped into the Transportation Trust Fund during the Great Recession, using money earmarked for transportation to support other priorities. That money has since been repaid, but annual local highway grants were not.

Del. Frank S. Turner, vice chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said House Bill 1515 already sufficiently protected transportation money. Under the bill — which when fully phased in is expected to raise more than $600 million a year for roads, highways, bridges and mass transit — Transportation Trust Fund money could be reallocated via a three-fifths vote of certain Senate and House committees. The bill also states that any money taken from the trust fund must be repaid in specified annual increments within five years.

Forcing a supermajority of a committee to approve the money shift should prevent raids, said Turner, a Howard County Democrat.

“That’s not always an easy thing to do, especially on something that controversial,” he said. “I think we’ve protected the people from any raiding of the Transportation Trust Fund in the future.”

Snyder, however, said many people would disagree.

“The public would look at a list of those names and would say it’s not that hard,” she said. “I think voters would like to see that lockbox a lot stronger.”

HB 1515 could increase gas prices by up to 20 cents a gallon within the next five years through a new wholesale tax on gasoline and indexing Maryland’s 23.5-cent excise tax on fuel, allowing it to rise annually with inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index.

Snyder said SB 829 could ease some of the potential pain felt by businesses and individuals by assuring them that the increased price at the pump would go toward Maryland’s transportation infrastructure.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce is lobbying House Democratic leaders to bring the bill up for a vote, but the senators who championed the “lockbox” bill don’t feel a sense of urgency. Because the legislation would be a constitutional amendment, it could not take effect until Maryland voters considered it during the next statewide election in 2014.

Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat who was among those who pushed for passage of the lockbox bill, said even if the House takes no action in the next few days, there’s plenty of time to pass such legislation before the next election.

“We have an opportunity to revisit the issue next year,” Madaleno said. “I think the public would feel better about it, especially when we’re developing a new tax policy that will result in the potential of annual increases.”

Snyder, though, wasn’t ready to give up the cause in 2013.

“We still have four days left,” Snyder said on Thursday. “Anything can happen.”