Governor, leadership continue search for common ground
by Daniel Leaderman
The governor and legislative leadership are searching for some sort of consensus on transportation funding, but a sweeping proposal from the Senate president isn’t gaining much traction in the House, lawmakers say.
“There’s not a lot of excitement,” said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Dist. 17) of Gaithersburg.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach, who introduced a transportation funding package last week, again prodded Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) to take action this week by revealing that the governor — who did not include a transportation bill in his legislative package — was trying to develop a consensus plan that could win support in both chambers.
O’Malley’s office confirmed that the governor was hopeful some agreement could be reached that both presiding officers could stand behind, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis is working with his leadership team to find common ground among delegates, according to a spokeswoman.
But reception to Miller’s proposal in the House has been lukewarm, delegates say.
Lawmakers from Montgomery County, in particular, were supportive of anything that put more money into the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, but lawmakers were still working through the proposal, Barve said.
“It’s a heavy lift. It’s worth it, but it is a heavy lift,” he said. “We’re trying to feel out the membership to see what would be acceptable to them.”
Del. James E. Malone Jr. (D-Dist. 12A) of Arbutus, who chairs a House subcommittee on motor vehicles and transportation, said that the price of gasoline likely would torpedo any gas tax increase.
“I feel pretty confident the votes aren’t there,” Malone said.
Miller’s proposal includes a 3 percent sales tax to be added to the wholesale price of gasoline, as well as another 5-cent-per-gallon tax — some or all of which could go to county projects — on top of the state’s existing 23.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax.
Miller also proposed creating up to two regional transit authorities that would oversee the funding, construction and maintenance of projects such as the proposed Purple Line and Red Line light-rail systems in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore regions, respectively.
Republicans in both chambers have objected to the call for a gas tax hike, arguing that the state has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.
“Motorists are already paying plenty to take care of our roads and bridges. We do not need a gas tax increase,” wrote Del. Justin Ready (R-Dist. 5A) of Westminster in an email to supporters this week. “Past actions regarding transportation funding are what have caused the problem in the first place.”
Much of the conflict stems from a dispute over how to fund the state’s major transit projects and whether tax money from rural counties should pay for rail lines they might not use, said Del. Tawanna P. Gaines (D-Dist. 22) of Berwyn Heights, who chairs the House Transportation & the Environment Subcommittee.
“There are more cars in Prince George’s County than all of Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore, so I think they’re already paying for their fair share,” Gaines said.
Miller’s proposal offered several creative options, she said. “I’m not sure how many we’ll choose, but I think it’s important that we have them on the table,” Gaines said.
Miller said the governor, while seemingly lukewarm to the idea of separate transit authorities, remained open to them and that O’Malley favored the use of an overall sales tax increase to fund transportation projects.
Miller, however, said that idea was “probably a non-starter,” because the sales tax already has been raised once on the governor’s watch — from 5 cents to 6 cents in 2007.