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Proposals to increase fees move forward

April 09, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - While a stalemate over slots and taxes dragged on Thursday, the Maryland General Assembly marched forward with Gov. Robert Ehrlich's two major fee proposals.

That means Maryland drivers are likely to see an increase in their vehicle registration fees and most, if not all, households are likely to be charged a new $30-a-year sewer fee.

On Thursday, the Senate tentatively approved an increase in vehicle registration fees to raise money for transportation projects. The House passed the increase last month.

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The 31-16 Senate vote virtually assures final passage.

Cost of a two-year registration for a passenger car would jump from $81 to $128. Large pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicle registrations would go from $108 to $180.

Ehrlich proposed the fee as part of a transportation package that's expected to raise $165 million for road and transit projects across the state.

A study commission has identified $10.5 billion in transportation projects that the state can't afford to pay for through the Transportation Trust Fund.

Ehrlich rejected gas tax and titling tax increases suggested by the commission.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, supported the fee increase.

Hopefully, senior citizens with financial hardships will be able to renew their registrations annually instead of every two years, he said.

That provision would be in the form of a nonbinding request in the state budget.

"That is the best I could do," he said.

A second fee proposed by Ehrlich, which would raise money for Chesapeake Bay restoration, also moved a step closer to passage.

The Senate voted 38-9 for the plan, which would charge public sewer customers $30 a year. The $66 million raised would be used to upgrade waste water treatment plants that discharge into the bay's watershed.

It would charge septic users the same fee beginning in July 2005.

The House plan would charge septic users through an 8-cent-a-gallon fee levied when sewage haulers empty their tanks at treatment plants.

Those differences must be worked out before the session ends at midnight Monday.

All three Washington County senators voted against the fee.

Sen. John J. Hafer, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, tried to explain his vote on the Senate floor but was cut off.

Lawmakers get two minutes to explain their vote and Hafer inadvertently yielded his time to another senator when he asked what percentage of people in the state use septics rather than public sewer systems. He never got a direct answer.

Afterward, Hafer said he wanted to show that septic systems represent a smaller part of the bay's pollution problem.

Transportation and sewer fee increases would not address a looming $800 million budget deficit projected for fiscal 2006.

Ehrlich wants to plug the hole with money from slot machines while House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, favors sales and income tax increases.

At an early-evening meeting between Ehrlich, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Busch, the leaders said they agreed on a general framework for slot machines but were unsure if they could hammer out an agreement before the session ends at midnight Monday.

Where to put slots parlors continues to be a major negotiation point.

Busch said there is agreement to put slots at Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort in Allegany County.

But Miller said the question remains whether to put slots there or at a racetrack to be built in Little Orleans, west of the Washington County line, as approved by the Senate.

Del. Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany, said a majority of Western Maryland lawmakers would prefer slots at the racetrack but consider Rocky Gap "a fallback position."

Slots foe Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Allegany/Washington, said he wants to block slots from both locations.

Ehrlich said the legislature could approve agreed-upon sites and others could be determined later by an independent commission.

Busch said he was willing to continue talking about the slots bill, which he has opposed.

"The question is, what's in the long-term interest of the citizens of Maryland," Busch said.

Miller said it remains difficult to break the stalemate.

All three leaders acknowledged that time is running out as the 90-day session is scheduled to end at midnight Monday.

"We need to move forward and salvage as much of the session as we can," Miller said.

Ehrlich said the House should either move forward with a slots bill or end negotiations so the leaders could put their time into other initiatives in the waning days.

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