- The Washington Times - Monday, April 5, 2004

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — A Senate committee voted yesterday to stick with a slashed version of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s transportation fee package that had been approved narrowly by the House of Delegates.

Deciding not to replenish $90 million that the House cut from the Republican governor’s transportation legislation, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee approved fees that would raise $165 million a year for road projects and mass transit.

The plan, which could get a full Senate vote today, along with adjusted revenue forecasts would generate $233 million a year for the transportation trust fund — mostly by raising annual vehicle-registration fees. Drivers would pay an average of $128 to register their cars every other year.

The package falls short of the goal set by a task force that outlined the road projects needed in Maryland by 2010. The panel determined in November that $17 billion worth of projects are needed over the next six years; the plan approved by the Senate committee would allow the department to raise $12 billion, Transportation Secretary Robert Flanagan said.

The cuts made by House lawmakers are “regrettable,” Mr. Flanagan said, but added: “This is a great step forward. The governor campaigned on improving Maryland’s transportation, and he’s taken a giant step forward in meeting that commitment.”

The House voted 72-69 last month to approve the stripped-down version of Mr. Ehrlich’s $320 million plan. Lawmakers took out fee increases for traffic violations and drunken driving. Also removed was a proposal to funnel rental-car sales taxes, worth $32 million.

Mr. Ehrlich proposed the increases after scrapping an idea to raise the gasoline tax, a measure supported by Democrats and business groups.

The legislature failed to meet yesterday’s deadline for passing the state budget, requiring Mr. Ehrlich to issue a proclamation that will extend the session if work isn’t completed on the budget by midnight Monday.

Such proclamations have become routine in recent years, but the budget generally is completed well before the end of the session.

Most legislative leaders expect the work will be finished on time this year, but Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat, said yesterday that he was open to coming back in a special session if necessary to balance the budget and pass a slot-machine bill.

Mr. Miller has delayed negotiations on the budget to apply pressure on House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, to move the slots bill out of the Ways and Means Committee and to the full House for a vote.

Most of the important work of the 2004 General Assembly session is bottled up because of the disagreements over slot machines, taxes and the budget. Key leaders met in private over the weekend to find a way out of the stalemate.

Mr. Miller said he, Mr. Busch and Mr. Ehrlich had a cordial discussion Sunday at the governor’s mansion. He sounded upbeat, saying the governor “indicated a willingness to look at some added revenues for 2006.”

But Mr. Ehrlich said there was “relatively little area upon which to negotiate” new revenues. “If the conversation makes a left turn to a new tax increase, the conversation needs to cease,” he said.

One new item, a tax on the sale of newspaper advertising and perhaps radio advertising, has been put on the table.

“The administration is taking an objective look at it, but no determination has been made,” said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor. “The administration is not leaning in either direction on it.”

Mr. Busch met Saturday with Mr. Ehrlich’s budget secretary, James “Chip” DiPaula, and Delegate Sheila E. Hixson, Montgomery Democrat and chairman of the committee that is handling slots legislation. The three leaders said the discussions failed to produce an agreement on slot machines or taxes.

House leaders want the administration to agree to new taxes or fees along with slot machines to solve the state’s long-range fiscal problems.

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