By David Saleh Rauf
ANNAPOLIS (April 12, 2011) Maryland lawmakers, fresh off a grueling 90-day session where they approved a mix of new fees slated to create about $58 million for road projects, already are eyeing this fall's special session as a way to try and push through a comprehensive transportation revenue package.
Such a plan almost inevitably would include taking another shot at increasing the state's gas tax, which has not changed since 1992.
Lawmakers this session made some moves to shore up a badly depleted pot of money dedicated for transportation projects known as the Transportation Trust Fund. But in the end, the General Assembly fell well short of finding a way to drum up the $800 million in new revenue for the fund that a 28-member commission on transportation funding recommended to address infrastructure and a growing backlog of road projects.
Instead, lawmakers moved forward with a variety of fee increases - ranging from vehicle titling to vanity plates - to generate about $58 million in new revenue for the fund.
House and Senate budget writers also inserted language in the fiscal 2012 budget that requires the state to pay back within five years money borrowed from the fund to plug budget holes, rejecting multiple bills that proposed a so-called "lockbox" on the state's ability to tap the fund for budget purposes. This session, Gov. Martin O'Malley plans to transfer $100 million from the fund to help run the state's day-to-day operations.
But lawmakers balked during the session at a plan that would have created up to $600 million for the transportation fund by increasing the state's gas tax by 10 cents and vehicle registration fees by 50 percent.
"The year is not over," Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller Jr. said, alluding to this fall's special session that will focus on redrawing the state's congressional districts. "But if these gas prices are the way they are right now, I don't think there's going to be a whole lot sentiment for transportation revenues. We're going to have to wait and see."
Sen. Robert Garagiola, a Montgomery Democrat who is part of the transportation-funding commission, sponsored the legislation to increase the gas tax and vehicle registration fees.
Part of the reason the General Assembly shied away from his proposal, Garagiola said, is that O'Malley's legislative agenda was silent on transportation funding. Surging gas prices, which started climbing mid-session, also "made a lot of people nervous," he said.
In the end, any comprehensive transportation revenue package will have to include some form of a gas tax increase, he said.
"We've got about $58 million of new dollars coming in. That's a good step forward," Garagiola said. "But I'm not done. We need hundreds of millions of dollars. I'm hopeful in the special session we're going to move something forward."