ANNAPOLIS — Democratic lawmakers were reluctant Tuesday to praise or criticize Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to levy a sales tax on gas but acknowledged the idea could prove very unpopular among motorists, business owners and other constituents who have already balked at proposals for smaller gas-tax increases.
Mr. O'Malley said Monday he wants the General Assembly to phase in a 6 percent sales tax on gas by adding 2 percentage points in each of the next three years.
The proposal could eventually add more than 20 cents to the cost of a gallon of gas.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said the money is needed to improve roads and transit systems but that Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, will have to work hard to prove its merits to lawmakers.
"It's going to be an extremely tough sell," said Mr. Miller, Prince George's Democrat. "He's not going to be able to convince the electorate why it's the best thing for them, but it's the responsibility of elected leaders to lead."
Democratic lawmakers have said a gas-tax increase will be necessary in this year's Assembly to help generate hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation projects. The current 23.5-cents-a-gallon excise tax has been unchanged since 1992.
The governor's proposal to add a sales tax could eventually generate more than $600 million a year, about $100 million more than a recent state commission's proposal to increase the excise tax by 15 cents — a proposal some lawmakers already worried was too heavy-handed and costly to residents, though the excise tax would be charged to gas distributors, rather than directly to consumers at the pump.
Mr. Miller also has said there is likely to be Senate support for a gas-tax hike but that an increase could have less support in the House, where lawmakers may be more concerned about the political ramifications of raising gas prices than its benefits to motorists.
"I think it's a ridiculous idea and it really kicks Marylanders when they are down," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, Calvert Republican. "To toss this around this cavalierly as a leader of the state is irresponsible."
Some political analysts have suggested Mr. O'Malley's proposal is a way to provide political cover for the assembly, allowing lawmakers to pass a lesser increase with less public criticism.
The governor, however, said Tuesday he is firmly behind adding a sales tax and will continue to push his proposal despite public concerns.
"I have concerns about many things," he said. "But there's nothing I'm more concerned about than moving our middle class forward and out of this recession."
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