Maryland's motoring nomads don't need a gas tax hike

January 15, 1999

This is "absolutely the wrong time" to raise taxes, because people are well-off and governments are already awash in their tax revenues, says Howard County Republican Del. Robert Kittleman.

Kittleman didn't say whether, by extension, this means the absolute bulliest time to raise taxes is when people are jobless and governments strapped for cash.

But it points out one of many taxing paradoxes the General Assembly faces as it enters the 1999 legislative session. Freshman Sen. Alex Mooney has commented on the silliness of the legislature scrambling to take your money (gasoline/cigarette tax increases) at the same time it is scrambling to give it back (income tax reduction).

But Mooney demonstrates the lucidity of inexperience. He'll get over that.

Things always get weird when people talk about a gasoline tax. Remember in 1992 when the Democrats refused to count a gas tax increase as part of a tax-hike package because they said it was not a tax, but a "user fee"?


This time around the twist is we have to increase state transportation spending in order to qualify for federal matching funds. And since the transportation budget is different from the state operating budget, the money logically should come an increase in gas taxes.

Two conventional arguments, which rival each other for their poorness, favor the increase. First, the price of gasoline is low, so people will be less likely to notice, and second even if the public does notice and/or care, so what, because certainly the voters' memories will not extend through the next election.

So are lawmakers raising the tax because they need it or because they believe they can get away with it?

We in Western Maryland are already paying for the sins of urbanization through vehicle emission testing and the gas tax is double the slight. Proportionally, we will pay more than our city friends simply because we drive more. But proportionally we will get less, because the big road money will be going to mass transit and projects of grander scope. (They get a new Wilson Bridge, we get a new traffic light on Md. 64.)

Still, roads and bridges are not items on which the state should skimp. If allowed to degenerate too far it will cost far more to bring them back up to snuff than would pay-as-you-go maintenance. The Maryland highway department is to be commended; this state's road system is one of the nation's best and it's worth keeping it that way.

Of course transportation is more than roads; it includes the expensive public transportation systems that are propped mightily by the gasoline tax. Public transportation fans argue, and not without cause, that automobile users get more in public taxpayer subsidies than do subway or rail users. And that car drivers actually benefit from public transit because it cuts down on highway wear and tear and alleviates, to a degree, traffic jams.

Points taken, but these fall into the category of fine, lofty policy thoughts that sound good but don't work out in real life. I've seen policy statements that calculate that to pay for the costs inflicted by automobiles gas should cost something like $2.50 a gallon.

Fie on policy statements. Americans are wanderers by nature, and I believe in the right to cheap wandering. Cars to us are what the six-shooters were to the old west. Cars and the freedom they provide are as symbolic of the nation (good traits and bad) as anything.

Much as it pains me to say because I count so many rail fans as friends (each and every one of whom I expect to hear from Monday morning), but this is a nation of cars and there is no viable transportation substitute on the horizon.

That's why, of the options the transportation-related taxing balloons being floated, the one mentioned by House Speaker makes the most sense: Keep the gas tax as is, and put it into roads; pay for public transportation shortfalls with a small sales tax increase (or a sales tax on catalog sales or services) in the metropolitan counties that use public transportation.

That's fair, it protects the quality of our roads and it makes it less likely that rural drivers will see all of their gas taxes gobbled up by metropolitan public transit projects.

True, it will make the Democrats of 1992 happy, because it would mean that a gas tax would closely mirror the definition of a user fee, but sometimes that's just the cost of progress.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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