- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2003

A Republican lawmaker has drafted legislation that would freeze Maryland’s Transportation Trust Fund over concerns that the Ehrlich administration will increase the gasoline tax to pay for road improvements.

“The bill is an effort to return trust to the Transportation Trust Fund,” said Delegate John R. Leopold of Anne Arundel.

Mr. Leopold said the bill, which would require a state constitutional amendment and voter approval, would prohibit the transfer of money from the trust fund to the general fund, unless the governor declares an emergency and a three-fifths General Assembly majority approves the move.

The governor also would have to submit legislation promising to repay the fund in five years, he said.

Mr. Leopold, who is running for county executive in Anne Arundel County, is the first Republican to say that an insolvent Transportation Trust Fund might lead to an increase in the gas tax.

The legislation is necessary to keep Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a fellow Republican, from squandering the money that Marylanders received from President Bush’s tax cut, he also said.

A Ehrlich spokeswoman said the administration would not comment on legislation that had yet to be presented.

Mr. Ehrlich took $300 million from the trust fund when he took office last year to balance a nearly $2 billion shortfall left by Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, said Jack Cahalan, chief spokesman for the state’s Department of Transportation.

Mr. Ehrlich still must present a budget before legislative sessions resume next month that includes a plan to reduce the remaining $786 million shortfall.

Mr. Cahalan said there is no extra money for new capital improvements in the department’s roughly $8 billion budget.

The legislation would not stop funding for the $1.7 billion Intercounty Connector or other projects already in the department’s budget. However, funding for the connector road will come mostly from tolls and from state and federal bonds.

Mr. Leopold acknowledged that Mr. Ehrlich was not the first governor to dip into the fund. He said the administrations of Mr. Glendening, Harry H. Hughes and William Donald Schaefer, all Democrats, had done likewise.

He estimates more than $700 million in the past two decades has been transferred from the trust fund to balance the state budget. Mr. Leopold also said $70 million has never been repaid.

The state has not raised the gas tax since 1992 and a transportation task force known as the Hellmann Commission is looking for a way to raise $300 million for the next six years to fund new projects, Mr. Leopold said.

He said lawmakers also are talking about increasing car-registration and titling fees to add to the fund.

“Anyway you cut it, those are all tax increases,” Mr. Leopold said. “Motorists paying these extra taxes deserve the confidence that the money will be used for transportation projects. Any request for a revenue increase is a non-starter unless the trust is restored to the transportation trust fund.”

Delegate Susan W. Krebs, Carroll County Republican, a co-sponsor of the bill, agreed.

“I think the governor last year had no choice and had to balance the budget using desperate measures, but we have to look into the future,” she said. “If we are going to even consider using additional sources for transportation projects, we need to ensure the public that it will be used for transportation. And giving the people the right to vote on this type of referendum would ensure that transportation revenues are used for transportation.”

Mr. Leopold said there are 25 states that have constitutional provisions protecting transportation funds.

“So voters would not be plotting new ground,” he said of the bill, patterned after Georgia’s law.

Mr. Leopold said a similar bill was introduced last session, but a vote was never taken.

“This one has more details in it, because now there is an established need for increased transportation revenues,” he said.

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