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Some Democratic gubernatorial candidates bucking top lawmakers on gas tax hike

Former Attorney General Doug Gansler, now seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, thinks Gov. Larry Hogan can issue an executive order suspending the gas tax hike. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Some of Maryland’s leading Democratic candidates for governor are divided on how an impending increase to the state gas tax should be handled.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat who is running for his party’s nomination for governor, announced this week that the state’s current 36.1-cent gas tax will increase 6.6 cents. The increase is automatic and required by a 2013 law that links the tax to both inflation and the average cost of a gallon of fuel in the previous year.

Franchot Tuesday called on Hogan and Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones, both Democrats, to call a special session of the General Assembly before June 1 to forestall the increase.

In a joint statement issued a day later, Ferguson and Jones rejected the idea of another gas tax holiday or delay in the increase.

In that statement, the legislative leaders said eliminating the increase “would not result in Marylanders seeing a price reduction at the pump but would be a loss of over $200 million in funding dedicated to ensuring the safety of our State’s roads and bridges.”

Ferguson and Jones blamed the increases on “big oil companies exploiting global uncertainty.”

“Furthermore, temporary tax holidays have long-term consequences,” the pair said in their statement. “As fuel prices rise, so too do the costs of maintenance and construction in our transportation sector. Ensuring the safety and integrity of Maryland’s roadways, bridges, and transit systems is critical. We cannot have a reliable transportation network that regularly experiences failing conditions due to insufficient funding and deferred maintenance. ”

But some of the leading Democratic candidates to succeed Hogan have differing positions on the tax.

John King, a Democrat running for governor, echoed some of the points made by Ferguson and Jones.

“What will it take for leaders like Peter Franchot and Governor Hogan to break their addiction to fossil fuels and outdated policies that leaves thousands of hard-working Marylanders waiting for a bus that won’t show up on time, a train that will never be built, or action on the climate crisis that continues to devastate communities every day?” King said in a statement. “Instead of settling for the solutions of the 1950s like Comptroller Franchot is suggesting, we need to urgently act to lower costs permanently for Marylanders — that means shifting away from gas-powered cars, dramatically improving & expanding public transit, building 10,000 charging stations, and achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035.”

Rushern Baker III and Doug Gansler both said they favored relief at the pump.

“Mr. Baker is in favor of stopping the mandated hike this year,” a spokesperson for the campaign said. “This is not, however, only the responsibility of the General Assembly. The comptroller could, if he wanted to, defer enforcement of the tax until the General Assembly is able to convene. This is a perfect  example of why we need experienced leadership in the governor’s office. The people with the ability to provide relief are just finger-pointing while people are paying an arm and leg just to get to work in the morning.”

Gansler, a former attorney general, called for action rather than “bickering and dithering.”

“As the only pragmatic Democrat in the race, I am opposed to any tax increase given the current pressures of inflation and the fact we are sitting on a historic surplus,” said Gansler. “Governor Hogan can declare a state of emergency and issue an executive order suspending the gas tax. A special session is not necessary and would be a waste of tax dollars. Furthermore, I find it interesting that Comptroller Peter Franchot, who never met a tax he didn’t like, is conveniently calling for tax relief now that he is running for governor.”

Tom Perez called for a six-month delay in the implementation of the increase. The Democrat said the governor should have authority for a temporary delay, something he said he would work with lawmakers to reform.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perez is calling for a six-month delay in the implementation of a gas tax increase. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

“Folks are not only feeling the pain at the pump, but in the grocery line, and around the kitchen table,” said Perez. “Rather than subsidizing Big Oil through another tax holiday, I would urge leaders in Annapolis to explore opportunities to provide targeted relief to Marylanders who are struggling the most — including mass transit users.”

Perez added that if a special session were called, lawmakers should also use it as an opportunity to pass a constitutional amendment that enshrines the right to an abortion in the Maryland Constitution. Jones, the House leader, proposed such legislation earlier this year. That bill died after Ferguson said the Senate would not take up the bill.

Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Wes Moore did not respond to a request for comment.

The issue is much easier for Republicans.

Kelly Schulz, a former state commerce secretary under Hogan, has branded the increase “the inflation tax” and vowed to repeal it if elected. Schulz’s branding of the increase is reminiscent of Hogan’s 2014 campaign in which he labeled the stormwater management fee “the rain tax.” Hogan has endorsed Schulz’s campaign.

Del. Dan Cox, who is one of three other Republicans seeking the nomination, said he would use an executive order to “suspend the gas tax pending legislative action.”

Cox said Marylanders need immediate relief.

“The governor and comptroller are at odds over who can suspend this tax, pending Legislative action, and the people of Maryland are fed up since both the governor and tax (Comptroller’s) offices have the authority to do so temporarily, yet both appear to be using the pain at the pump for political purposes rather than action to protect us all,” said Cox.

A Republican has been elected governor in Maryland in three of the last five elections and did well when e able to link the campaign to pocketbook issues. This year, weeks out from the start of early primary voting, voters are confronted economic pressures, including record high gas taxes and inflation as well as social issues like abortion.

The increase in the gas tax pales in comparison to other price increases. Even so, Mileah Kromer, a political science professor at Goucher College and director of the Goucher Poll, said the issue is one that is on the minds of residents daily.

“It’s something so many consumers feel every single day,” said Kromer. “It’s right in your face.”

A March Goucher Poll found that 56% of those asked said recent gas price increases had been a minor or major financial hardship.

But another gas tax holiday similar to the one this spring, or a delay in an increase, can pose problems for Democrats — especially progressive Democrats.

“When you say you want to give a tax holiday — it’s tax relief given to people who own cars and put gas in cars,” Kromer said. “That’s not everybody. Some people take buses.”

Foregoing the tax or delaying the increase could have ramifications for transportation projects.

Still, Kromer said her polling repeatedly shows that Marylanders are generally supportive of public initiatives. But it’s not an absolute, she said.

“They are still really cost-conscious,” said Kromer.