- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley will go before House and Senate committees Wednesday and ask them to raise the state’s gas tax, but he might get drowned out by the talk from constituents back in lawmakers’ home districts.

Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, has clung to the proposal in recent weeks even as skepticism of the plan has mounted in the face of rising gas prices and persistent objections from the public.

The governor says the tax increase is a necessary investment in the state’s congested, too-long-ignored road and transit infrastructure.

But with gas prices climbing toward $4 a gallon, leading Democratic lawmakers now say the unpopular proposal has been all but torpedoed by high prices and that legislators should come back and revisit it at a more appropriate time.

“As long as the gas is rising, I don’t see any appetite for a gas-tax increase,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat, said Tuesday. “It might not pass this year but people need roads, they need bridges, they need mass transit and it’s got to happen.

Numerous states are looking to boost funding for roads and transit but most have shied away from increasing their gas tax due to outcry from residents. Last year, several states including Maryland abandoned proposals while Georgia and North Carolina instituted automatic increases that would tie the tax rate to inflation.

This year, Maryland, Iowa and Michigan are considering gas-tax proposals.

Mr. O’Malley’s plan would phase in a 6-percent sales tax on gas bought at the wholesale level by installing a 2-percent tax next year with additional 2-percentage-point increases in the following two years.

The state currently has a 23.5-cents-a-gallon excise tax on gas, which has gone unchanged since 1992 when prices were barely over $1 a gallon.

The governor’s office says the proposed sales tax could eventually increase gas prices by as much as 20 cents a gallon but would have a braking mechanism to delay its implementation in any year where prices rise by more than 15 percent.

In Maryland, an average gallon of regular gas currently costs $3.82, according to AAA — up more than 30 cents since the start of February.

Mr. Miller said Tuesday that he would like to see the assembly approve a gas tax during a potential special session later this year when gas prices hopefully have fallen.

But the governor’s office maintains that a tax hike is necessary this session.

“If we don’t make these choices now, who will do it for us?” O’Malley spokeswoman Takirra Winfield said. “We cannot continue to delay our state’s pressing transportation Infrastructure needs and leave our children with the problem.”

While the governor says he is willing to take political heat for a proposal he thinks will help residents in the long run, opponents have criticized him as being tone-deaf to the economic struggles of Marylanders.

Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin argued the tax hits too close to home for working-class residents and that if the assembly passes it, voters could seek revenge in the state’s next election in 2014.

“It puts everybody who supports it at risk because it is so unpopular across the state,” said Mr. Pipkin, Cecil Republican. “This is just not a tax that people like. It just shows how out of touch the governor is with the working families of the state.”

State lawmakers may be risking re-election by approving a tax hike on gas, but an increase could actually help Mr. O’Malley’s political career, said Todd Eberly, the coordinator of public-policy studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Mr. O’Malley, who will be forced out by term limits in 2015, is widely expected to run for president in 2016 and can ill afford to be pushed around by his majority-Democratic legislature, Mr. Eberly said.

A successful tax push through a reluctant legislature could be a major feather in the governor’s cap as he looks toward higher office and hopes to build on this year’s passage of his same-sex marriage bill.

Willing the gas tax to passage through a reluctant legislature could establish him in the eyes of national Democratic voters as a strong leader and fall in line with Democratic policies that discourage fuel consumption and encourage people to buy more efficient vehicles.

“In a primary, it doesn’t hurt him,” Mr. Eberly said. “I don’t think the governor can just afford to abandon his proposal. That just does not convey strength or convey influence.”

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