- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — While Gov. Martin O'Malley is mulling whether to propose increasing the state’s gas tax amid mixed public opinion, a General Assembly leader is suggesting he increase the tax beyond what a state commission has suggested.

The commission has recommended increasing the 23.5-cents-a-gallon tax by 5 cents in each of the next three years.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. thinks a nickel increase in the first year might prove inadequate, considering Maryland’s urgent and desperate need of money to rebuild and improve roads.

“I don’t know if [the governor’s proposal] is going to be phased in, and I don’t know the amount,” he said last week. “But it needs to be more than 5 cents a gallon, I do know that.”

Mr. O'Malley introduced much of his legislative agenda Monday, including bills to introduce offshore wind energy and legalize same-sex marriage.

However, he has remained tight-lipped about one of the biggest issues facing this year’s General Assembly — whether to increase the gas tax, which supplies revenue for road and transit projects but has gone unchanged since 1992.

The governor and leaders of the Democrat-controlled assembly have hinted strongly that an increase is necessary this year to help alleviate congested roadways and pay for job-creating projects.

The commission in its recommendation last year also suggested including an index to allow for future increases in line with inflation.

Lawmakers in the 2011 assembly introduced a bill to increase the tax by 10 cents, but the legislation failed after heavy criticism from the public and the trucking industry.

Analysts have said each 5-cent increase would bring the state about $150 million a year to help replenish the Transportation Trust Fund, which has been heavily borrowed against by state lawmakers in recent years.

Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, has declined to say publicly how much of an increase he could propose and whether he would phase it in over multiple years or have it applied immediately.

A spokeswoman for the governor said Monday he could announce a proposal in the next week or two.

Many business leaders say they support a one-time increase of 5 to 10 cents but also would consider supporting a larger, staggered increase.

“We know there’s going to be some hardship, but you have to balance that,” said Kathy Snyder, president and CEO of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. “When you’re stuck on congested roads, you’re losing business time and losing family time.”

Supporters of a gas-tax increase say one of their most important jobs this year will be to assure the public that an increase is for the state’s greater benefit and that the funds will go to roads and transit rather than being siphoned for other causes.

Many residents have reacted poorly to the prospect of heaping a few more cents onto already high and unpredictable gas prices.

Mr. Miller has said he expects an increase to pass the Senate but be more closely contested in the House.

“I can empathize with the gas tax because we haven’t raised it since 1992,” he said. “It’s a user fee, and it’s desperately needed. It’s a responsible vote, and it has to happen.”