- The Washington Times - Monday, July 30, 2012

First there was a new casino and table games, then came “inherently dangerous” dogs, and now Maryland’s transportation system has joined the growing list of legislative issues state lawmakers are hoping get onto the special-session agenda next week.

State Sen. James C. Rosapepe and Delegate Brian J. Feldman on Monday released their joint effort to create new state transportation funding and improve transparency in the End the Gridlock Constitutional Amendment.

The amendment would package any future transportation plan and its funding as a ballot issue for voters to decide. The amendment also would restrict money in the current transportation trust fund from being used in other areas of the state budget.

“I think in many people’s minds, the biggest issue facing this region is traffic congestion and the fact we have to do something to invest in transportation infrastructure,” said Mr. Feldman, a Montgomery County Democrat. “The focus of the session clearly is to deal with gambling, but another issue possibly being brought up is pit bulls. I would suggest what’s far more important to the state and to the region is the transportation infrastructure system.”

Last week Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, announced a special session — the second one this year — to begin Aug. 9 and focus on a possible casino at National Harbor and allowing table games in Maryland. In the months leading up to the announcement, some legislators have talked about a bill to address a Court of Appeals ruling that pit bulls are “inherently dangerous.”

Mr. Feldman said he and Mr. Rosapepe had “floated the idea initially a few months ago,” when the option of a July special session was being tossed around. When the governor made the official announcement of a special session last week, it gave the lawmakers the green light to send emails, look for co-sponsors and hold “fresh conversation.”

Raquel Guillory, spokeswoman for Mr. O’Malley, said the proposed bill “does sound like a familiar retread” but that her office had not seen any documents.

“Our goal is focused solely this special session on moving beyond the gaming issue,” she said.

Transportation funding has been a hot issue in Annapolis. Starting in 2010, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding researched how much more money the state needs to improve its infrastructure and examined ways to get it. The commission published its recommendations, which included increasing the state’s gasoline tax and protecting money in the transportation trust fund, in November, but they gained no traction in the General Assembly.

Mr. O’Malley proposed his own gasoline sales tax as a way to fund transportation improvements, but it also went nowhere during the legislative session.

Gus Bauman, a D.C. lawyer who served as chairman of the Blue Ribbon Commission, said he “fully supported” the proposed bill because the first recommendation of the commission had been to “protect the trust fund.”

According to the commission’s report, more than $570 million has been transferred from the transportation fund to other uses since 1984. Just $544 million has been repaid.

“It’s the least that the state can do for the citizens of this state to pass a law that says the transportation trust fund is actually a trust fund,” he said.

AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson, who also served on the commission, said he knew the Maryland lawmakers were considering the new legislation. He said it “has very serious merit,” pointing to the success of passing referendums instateswhere voters have the final say on a transportation project.

“They’re not suggesting to throw out all of the other ways to fund transportation, they’re just saying this would be one more tool,” Mr. Anderson said. “We’re out of money for new projects in the state of Maryland. We’re badly keeping up with necessary maintenance. I would like to see a down payment to relieve congestion in D.C. and Maryland. By inaction, they’re causing hundreds of thousands of voters to sit in some of the nation’s worst gridlock.”

The special session is to last just a few days — the deadline to put anything on the November ballot is Aug. 20 — and Mr. Rosapepe is a realist.

“Our proposal is not the plan, it’s a constitutional amendment,” he said. “Instead of raising taxes and then figuring out how to spend the money, we’ll put together a proposal for a major transportation investment, cost it out, how much are we going to have to borrow, and take it to the voters in a referendum.”

Mr. Rosapepe said he had spoken to the governor about the idea in a letter several months ago and mentioned it to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat.

“It’s a new idea, and new ideas take time, but I think people understand traditional ways are not working,” he said.

• Meredith Somers can be reached at msomers@washingtontimes.com.

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