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House votes for fee increase

March 20, 2004|By LAURA ERNDE

Anyone who owns a vehicle or flushes a toilet in Maryland will have to pay increased fees under legislation passed Friday by the Maryland House of Delegates.

If approved by the Senate, the fees would be dedicated to transportation projects and the cleanup of Chesapeake Bay.

"In my mind, it's a 50 percent increase in car registrations all in the same day that we increase water and sewer rates for the people of Washington County," said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, the only local lawmaker to vote against both fee bills.

While it was difficult for fiscal conservatives to support Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's proposed fee increases, Del. Christopher B. Shank said it was the right thing to do.

"Sometimes leading involves very tough political choices. At the end of the day, we were elected to do what's right for our constituents," said Shank, R-Washington.

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The transportation plan squeaked by the House on a 72-69 vote Friday with the support of all but two Republicans.

Under the plan, the cost of car registrations would increase from $81 to $128 every other year. Passenger truck registrations would increase from $108 to $180.

The plan would raise about $220 million for transportation, which is $80 million less than Ehrlich took from the Transportation Trust Fund last year to balance the general fund budget.

Shank said former Gov. Parris Glendening "raided and looted" the fund by spending money on mass transit rather than highways.

Ehrlich has promised to give priority to road projects in the county and throughout the state through the plan, which foregoes a gas tax increase that Shank and other local lawmakers said would be more onerous than the fee increase.

"If we want to keep up with growth, we've got to keep up the Transportation Trust Fund," he said.

Donoghue said he would have preferred a different revenue source, such as charging managed-care organizations the same 2 percent tax that other health insurers pay or closing the Delaware loophole that allows corporations to avoid paying Maryland income tax.

Transportation Secretary Robert Flanagan praised Republicans for supporting the registration fee increase.

"We were successful because the members of the Republican Caucus know the people they represent in their districts are going to get value in improved safety and reduced congestion on the highways," Flanagan said.

There was less controversy over the so-called "flush tax," which will charge public sewer customers $30 per year and septic users 8 cents per gallon each time they have their tanks pumped.

The House overwhelmingly passed the proposal by a vote of 134-5, with two of the nay votes coming from Washington County delegates.

Donoghue voted against it because he doesn't believe local residents should subsidize the bay cleanup effort.

Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, said he heard from constituents who were concerned that the fee would be a burden to them in the face of escalating sewer bills.

"I just figure we can only tax Maryland citizens so much," said McKee, who was the only Republican to vote against the fee.

Shank said everyone has a responsibility to protect the environment for future generations.

"It's everybody's Chesapeake Bay. I reject the notion that it's not our problem," he said.

Shank cited the February 2002 release of millions of gallons of partially treated sewage into Antietam Creek. Hagerstown's sewage treatment plant was incapacitated by high concentrations of chemicals common to industrial cleaners.

The sewer fee would raise $66 million per year for upgrades to the Hagerstown sewage treatment plant and others that empty into the bay watershed.

The septic fee would generate another $12 million, which would be paid by haulers when they empty their trucks at wastewater treatment plants.

Homeowners who use septic would get grants and loans to improve their systems. Farmers also would get some of the money to plant cover crops to prevent fertilizer runoff.

If approved by the Senate, both fees will go into effect July 1.

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