- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 14, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — A Senate leader in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly said Wednesday that a proposal to increase the state’s gas tax might get shelved during its 2012 session because of anticipated budget woes and public outcry.

Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Edward J. Kasemeyer, Baltimore County Democrat, said legislators will likely have their hands full attempting to close an anticipated $1 billion budget shortfall and might not get around to considering a proposal to raise the 23.5-cents-a-gallon excise tax.

A state-appointed commission recommended last week that lawmakers pass $520 million in tax and fee increases to fund improvements to aging road and transit infrastructure.

The state has not raised its gas tax since 1992, but opponents of an increase contend it will burden residents already dealing with tough economic times.

“All of us realize that to have a vibrant transportation infrastructure program, you need to add new revenues,” Mr. Kasemeyer said after a committee hearing Wednesday. “But it boils down to: How much can the average person deal with when they’re unemployed or making less money than they used to make?”

He also said the General Assembly is unlikely to have a gas-tax increase unless it or alternate tax increases are included in Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposed budget.

While some legislators support a gas-tax increase, such a proposal has struggled to gain traction in other states and in Maryland, where the assembly this year failed to pass a 10-cents-a-gallon increase.

Lawmakers initially entertained thoughts of revisiting the plan during this October’s special redistricting session but are unlikely to do so, Mr. Kasemeyer said.

Supporters of an increase contend that transportation funds are sorely needed, and that the need will only grow if Congress makes widely anticipated cuts to its local transportation funding.

Congress appears poised to extend its current funding levels for six months, but some officials say the state should begin bolstering its own revenues to brace for cuts that are still likely to come.

“The most fair, across-the-board way to do that is with the gas tax,” said Jim Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. “There’s still money out there. It’s not a poverty state.”

Most state officials agree that transportation funding is an urgent need, but many offer differing views on how the funds should be raised. Rural legislators have pushed for greater tax burdens on urban areas because of their heavy use of public transit, which has taken up a growing share of state transportation funds in recent years.

“Where I live, you’ve got to use a vehicle to do anything or get anywhere,” said committee member Sen. George C. Edwards, Garrett Republican. “We’re still asking the public who drives to pay for the bulk of projects, whether they be roads and bridges or mass transit.”

The Senate committee discussed several proposals Wednesday, including regional sales taxes in transit-heavy areas, as well as requiring Prince George’s and Montgomery counties to pay a combined 25 percent of subsidies to the Metro system.

The state currently pays 100 percent of the subsidies. Mr. Kasemeyer said that situation is unlikely to change unless the state can offer some sort of funding “trade-off” with local jurisdictions.

Donald Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee business-advocacy group, said that when the assembly decides to take up transportation funding, it will likely have to create a revenue package that centers on increasing the gas or sales tax.

He said lawmakers will have to convince the public that the tax revenues will help them in the long run by going to roads and transit, and won’t be siphoned off for non-transportation purposes.

“There’s no magic elixir,” Mr. Fry said. “There’s a real credibility issue that’s going to have to be faced.”

• David Hill can be reached at dhill@washingtontimes.com.

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