State lawmakers approve local road money

March 30, 2011|By DAVID SALEH RAUF | Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland counties and municipalities are set to receive a one-time $13.2 million infusion to help maintain and repair battered roads, under spending plans recently approved by the House and Senate.

State budgets approved by both chambers set aside the money for fiscal 2012 to help offset a series of funding cuts in recent years that have drastically slashed state aid dedicated for county and city road projects.

The $13 million injection amounts to a minor victory for the state's local governments that in recent years have been forced to tap emergency funds, revert to a series of “patchwork” fixes or shelve road projects altogether, said Michael Bennett, president of the Maryland Municipal League.

But the money doesn't come close to restoring funding levels local governments once enjoyed.

Counties and municipalities use state money for day-to-day road upkeep that includes everything from snow removal to pothole repairs.

“We've been working anybody and everybody we could to get some money back,” said Bennett, who also is mayor of Aberdeen. “All we're trying to do is keep roads passable.”

The state allocates money to local governments for roads through a fund called Highway User Revenue that is estimated in fiscal 2012 at $1.6 billion. The funds, generated from a mix of vehicle fuel, titling and registration fees, are divvied up among local governments and the state.

The lion's share, roughly 91 percent, goes toward funding the Maryland Department of Transportation. In recent years, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley has used hundreds of millions to plug budget holes.

The state's portion of the funds it gives to local governments has dropped from about $555 million to an estimated $137 million between fiscal 2007 and fiscal 2012, according to legislative analysts.

Under the recently-approved one-time grant, Maryland's 157 municipalities are set to receive an extra $8.2 million for road projects on top of the $1.6 million they were originally allocated.

The state's 23 counties will split an additional $5 million on top of the $8.2 million originally allocated under the state's formula for highway user revenue.

“This is important for municipalities that have really been shortchanged the past several years and are in desperate need of those funds,” said Sen. James DeGrange, an Anne Arundel Democrat and a key Senate budget writer. “The counties also need a little boost and this will help.”

Lawmakers have chipped away at the amount given to local governments for roads since 2008, but in fiscal 2010, the state Board of Public Works slashed highway user revenue funding for most local jurisdictions by roughly 95 percent, according to the Maryland Association of Counties.

The General Assembly made the reductions permanent in 2010 and also tweaked the funding distribution formula to reduce local governments' share of highway user revenue from 30 percent to about 9 percent.

O'Malley also has diverted about $675 million in highway user revenues to the state's general fund since fiscal 2010, according to legislative analysts.

The governor is slated to tap about $320 million of road funds this session to balance the budget, and another 19.3 percent of the total highway user revenue pot in fiscal 2013.

Former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, also transferred highway user money into the state's general fund.

A panel tasked with studying Maryland's transportation network recommended in a February interim report to the General Assembly that lawmakers work to restore hundreds of millions in highway user revenue used to balance the budget.

Currently, there are no plans to replenish highway user revenue money O'Malley has shuffled to the general fund. Democrats defend the governor's use of the funds, describing the money distributed to local governments as grants that have diminished during tough economic times.

“We don't have to pay it back. How do you pay back a grant?” said Del. Tawanna Gaines, a Prince George's Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee in charge of transportation funding.  “This is a wake-up call for them.”

Under the current distribution formula, counties and municipalities were set to receive 0.6 percent of the highway user fund before the one-time boost. By fiscal 2013, local governments are slated to get 1.7 percent of the total pot, but that won't be enough to fully fund road projects across the state, Aberdeen's Bennett said.

That leaves local governments with few options outside of tapping emergency funds, bonds or raising taxes to pay for road projects.

“Those kind of things affect elections,” Bennett said. “If I went in and said, ’I'm going to a do a penny and a half property tax increase,’ I could plan on not being in office in November.”

The Herald-Mail Articles