After voting down four Republican-backed amendments, a Senate panel voted 9-4 Thursday to send a gas tax increase to the Senate floor.
The divide over the bill pits the rural parts of the state against the more urban areas that see the benefits of public transportation. Three of the amendments, all offered by Sen. Richard F. Colburn (R-Dist. 37) of Cambridge, were attempts to ensure that at least half of the revenue from the bill go toward roads and bridges rather than mass transit projects.
The bill, proposed by the governor and amended by the House, puts a sales tax on the wholesale price of motor fuel, phasing it in during the next three years to 5 percent. In the future, the 23.5 cent excise tax will increase along with inflation.
The proposal is expected to generate $4.4 billion during the next six years.
Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington argued that the law does not need a requirement to set aside road funding, especially during the first two years of tax increases.
“I think most of the dollars are going out for road projects anyway,” he said. Big transit projects such as the light rail Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton and the Red Line in Baltimore will not be ready to move forward until 2015 at the very earliest.
Opponents of the gas tax allege that motorists in rural parts of the state are subsidizing the 9 percent of Marylanders who ride public transportation.
Another amendment offered by Colburn would have nixed the indexing provision, which he and other opponents say is one of the most egregious parts of the law, because the excise tax will go up with inflation annually, and lawmakers will not have to vote on the increase.
“We’re sent down here to vote up or down on this kind of thing,” said Sen. David R. Brinkley (R-Dist. 4) of New Market. “This is the worst part of the bill.”
Also built into the bill is a provision that requires study of the potential for regional transit authorities, which could charge taxes and fees in regions where more funding is needed for projects.
However, some rural lawmakers contend that it will be very difficult to come back to the drawing board once the current proposal passes.
The committee also unanimously passed a bill that would amend the Maryland Constitution to include a provision that locks up revenue intended for transportation, only allowing funds to be diverted to other areas of the budget if three-fifths of the General Assembly approve.
Although the current bill has such a “lockbox” provision, some have argued it is not strong enough, requiring only three-fifths of the members of the respective House and Senate committees to approve.
As a constitutional amendment, voters would have to approve the lockbox provision.
However, the bill has not yet been heard in the House, and only 11 days remain in the session, making its chance for passage questionable.