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Lawmakers say gas tax unfair to rural residents

January 17, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - Washington County lawmakers don't like the idea of raising the gas tax or the state sales tax to pay for road improvements and mass transit.

But Maryland officials have warned that something needs to be done this year or next, to fix the depleting Transportation Trust Fund.

Washington County lawmakers said the gas tax is not fair to rural residents.

"My constituents aren't using the Metro system and they shouldn't be paying for it," said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington.

Over the past few years, a larger proportion of the trust fund has gone for mass transit, said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

Local lawmakers say that's a good argument for funding mass transit and roads separately.

"People who are actually using the system should fund it. I just think there's got to be a better system," Donoghue said.

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One way to balance the funding would be a regional sales tax increase, which would apply only to the metropolitan counties that put a greater burden on the system, said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney and Dels. Louise V. Snodgrass and Joseph R. Bartlett said they would oppose any kind of proposed tax increase.

"I do not support new taxes. I don't understand it. The economy is good," said Snodgrass, R-Frederick/Washington.

"It really just stems from my idea that we're overextended as a society," said Bartlett, R-Frederick/Washington.

Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, said he doesn't buy the argument that the trust fund is ailing while the state is enjoying record revenue growth in its general fund.

"They can say what they want. The money's there and they can spend it on roads and bridges," he said.

But Del. Sue Hecht warned that area residents, especially commuters, depend on public transportation more than they may realize.

Frederick is slated to get a MARC train station in 2000 and local residents have asked for such transportation projects as the proposed widening of Interstate 81, said Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington.

"We have to do something. The question is what, how much and when," she said.

Delegation Chairman Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, said he recognizes that something needs to be done, but he's not convinced it should be a tax increase.

"I'm not sold on either a gas tax or a sales tax increase," McKee said.

A sales tax might be the lesser of two evils, local lawmakers said.

If the 23.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax is increased by a nickel, Maryland's gas tax would be higher than both Pennsylvania and West Virginia, which charge 25.9 and 25.35.

That would seriously hurt Washington County businesses because motorists passing through would wait until they got to Pennsylvania or West Virginia to stop for gas, Donoghue said.

A 1 percent sales tax increase would hurt Washington County less because it would create a universal 6 percent sales tax in the Tri-State area, they said.

Gov. Parris Glendening is expected to announce early this week whether to seek some sort of tax increase for transportation either this year or next, said spokesman Ray Feldmann.

Glendening would prefer a "more traditional" source of revenue by raising the gas tax, but he hasn't ruled out House Speaker Casper Taylor Jr.'s idea of raising the state sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent.

Taylor said a sales tax increase would spread out the burden and also raise more money.

On Thursday, Taylor said disputes about which strategy to pursue could prevent action on transportation this year.

Some lawmakers have balked at either idea, saying a tax increase will be hard to sell to the public when the good economy has produced a budget surplus.

If Glendening delays a proposed increase until next year, it would be to educate people on the need for it, Feldmann said.

Glendening has been meeting with legislators and staff.

He is also waiting for a report from the Transportation Investment Committee, appointed last month to study the issue. A final report won't be finished until next week, said Jack Cahalan, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation.

The 19-member panel includes Don Bowman of D.M. Bowman Trucking in Williamsport.

Although he recognizes the need for highway funding, Bowman said a gas tax would hurt his business and others dependent on interstate traffic.

"If our prices are high, people just won't stop. We've got to do something else other than raising our fuel taxes," he said.

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