Rhetoric over road fund transfers challenged

February 12, 2011|By DAVID SALEH RAUF | Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan to transfer $100 million from a fund dedicated for building roads and bridges is drawing strong backlash, but some lawmakers say the rhetoric is unfounded.

In recent weeks, Republican leaders have taken turns blasting O'Malley for "raiding" the Transportation Trust Fund to help balance the state's budget. It's a term that's even crossed party lines, as Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola has occasionally used it to describe transfers from the transportation fund.

But the image of O'Malley pillaging the fund's coffers is far from accurate, said some lawmakers, who argue the money that's been redirected to help run the state's day-to-day operations in the past 27 years has largely been replenished.

Since 1984, roughly 91 percent of the more than $571 million redirected from the transportation fund to the general fund has been paid back, according to data from the Department of Legislative Services.

A $68 million repayment to the transportation fund scheduled for fiscal 2012 would make up the outstanding balance, lawmakers said.

"They're not talking the facts. They simply don't know how many times we've paid back the Transportation Trust Fund," said Del. Tawanna Gaines, D-Prince George's. "Sometimes you want to put that spin on it. You simply want to give misinformation."

The transportation fund, established in 1971, is used mainly for bridge upkeep and highway maintenance. It's funded primarily by the gasoline tax, vehicle registration fees and vehicle excise taxes.

Past governors have tapped the fund to close budget shortfalls and on occasion to pay for items like new helicopters. In 2003 and 2004, under former Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich, a total of $315 million was transferred from the transportation fund to the general fund to help close budget deficits, according to legislative analysts.

This session, O'Malley's fiscal 2012 budget proposes shuffling $60 million from the transportation fund into the general fund. Another $40 million would be redirected from the transportation fund to the rainy day fund.

O'Malley's proposed transfers are expected to be a hot topic at Monday's meeting of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding, said Gaines, a member of the commission. Lawmakers said the proposal is unpopular among factions in the House, the chamber that gets the first shot at the budget this session.

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