By GREG MASTERS
ANNAPOLIS (October 19, 2011)—Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown said Tuesday that a gas tax increase could help Maryland fund needed infrastructure projects and create jobs.
His testimony before a joint hearing of the Maryland House and Senate came one day after Gov. Martin O'Malley said he would strongly consider a recommendation to increase the state's gasoline tax by 15 cents a gallon as part of a jobs plan.
"We need to expand our investments in Maryland's aging and overburdened infrastructure," Brown said, adding that jobs are the state's "most pressing need."
O'Malley said Monday that he will consider the gas tax increase and other revenue-raising recommendations by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Funding, which will issue its final report on Nov. 1. The increased gas tax is expected to be one of the recommendations.
"Certainly the gas tax is one way of funding the massive, underfunded transportation infrastructure needs that we have today," Brown said, after his testimony.
The gas tax increase would likely be phased in over three years, with a 5 cent-per-gallon increase each year, said Donald Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission.
The commission has also discussed increasing public transit fares and raising the cost of vehicle registration and emissions inspections as ways to address the deficit in the state's Transportation Trust Fund.
"It's not going to be one source. It's going to be a combination of sources," Fry said.
Maryland's Transportation Trust Fund was created in 1971 as a dedicated source for transportation needs, but in past years the fund has been used to help balance the state's budget.
Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake testified at the Tuesday hearing about infrastructure needs in their jurisdictions.
"All the easy options are gone. Let's just face it," Baker said. "So now it's down to tough options. But we need to do it," he said.
"Looking at the options I've seen out there, an increase in the gasoline tax is probably the best one that's available to us right now," Baker said.
Rawlings-Blake said she frequently hears about poor road conditions from community associations.
"Communities in Baltimore City have certainly been weighed down by our efforts to get on the other side of the Great Recession, but they also understand the needs," she said.
Republican Delegate Justin Ready of Carroll County issued a statement Tuesday criticizing the gas tax component of O'Malley's jobs plan and past raids of the Transportation Trust Fund.
"The root cause of our Transportation Trust Fund deficit is constant raiding of the fund to spend on non-transportation projects," Ready said, in his statement.
Conservative groups have also criticized the idea of using tax increases to fund infrastructure projects.
"It's an absolutely disingenuous idea because the money for these transportation projects should already be available. About a billion dollars has been stolen out of the Transportation Trust Fund over the years," said Nick Loffer, Maryland grassroots director for the conservative organization Americans for Prosperity.
"Gov. O'Malley is asking people to pay twice," Loffer said.
The Blue Ribbon Commission may also recommend a constitutional amendment or other measure to ensure that the Transportation Trust Fund is only used for transportation purposes, Fry said.
"The motorists have a right to know and trust that that's how their money's going to be spent," he said.
Loffer was part of a rally in Annapolis Tuesday in which Americans for Prosperity and members of Maryland's Tea Party movement spoke out against a proposed redistricting map and higher taxes.
"If Gov. O'Malley was serious about creating jobs, he would get rid of the yearly billion dollar-plus deficit by cutting spending, which would get the yearly threat of taxes off the table and give certainty to businesses to create jobs," Loffer said.
O'Malley spokeswoman Takirra Winfield said the "larger question" concerns the long-term effects of not addressing infrastructure needs.
"How many bridges can we live without? What are the risks of not taking action now to restore our infrastructure?" Winfield said.