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Gas tax hike idea opposed by some Washington County lawmakers

February 03, 2013|By KAUSTUV BASU | kaustuv.basu@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — For several years, Gov. Martin O’Malley has been talking about raising transportation funds for Maryland with a possible sales tax increase on gasoline.

Last year, he floated an idea of a 6 percent sales tax increase on gas, but did not find a lot of backers.

In his State of the State address Wednesday, O’Malley made another reference to the state’s transportation needs.

“There is no reason why we should be content with having the worst traffic congestion in the country. Building a 21st-century transportation network won’t happen by itself,” O’Malley said.

One idea being floated by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert/Prince George’s, in this session of the Maryland General Assembly is giving county governments the option to raise 5 cents per gallon on gas to fund local transportation projects. According to the Associated Press, he also has suggested a separate 3 percent sales tax increase on gasoline statewide that could bring in $300 million.

The gas tax rate last was increased in 1992, when it went from 18.5 cents to 23.5 cents per gallon.

But such ideas remain unpalatable to many legislators in the Washington County delegation because they feel that any increase in the gas tax unfairly punishes rural areas of the state because residents in those areas are much more dependent on their cars.

Sen. Ronald N. Young, D-Frederick/Washington, has filed a bill that would enable counties or municipalities to charge 2 cents per gallon on gas sales to fund local and transit projects.

Sen. George C. Edwards, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, has reintroduced two bills from the 2012 regular session.

One proposes to add a 2.1 percent tax to the wholesale price of gas in areas served by mass transit such as Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Another would add half a percent to sales tax in those counties to pay for mass transit systems.

“My idea is a regional tax controlled by the state,” Edwards said.

The money collected from these taxes would go to a separate mass transportation account in the state’s Transportation Trust Fund. The bills also seek to cap the amount that mass transit gets from the trust fund at 2012 levels.

“I think it is the fairest approach instead of putting all the burden on vehicle owners,” Edwards said.

Part of the purpose of his bills was to bring more ideas to the table, he said.

The Transportation Trust Fund was created in 1971 to support the Maryland Department of Transportation, and revenue sources include gas taxes, vehicle excise taxes and motor vehicle taxes.

But many in the Washington County delegation remain opposed to any gas tax increase.

“We don’t support this. I don’t support this. The people that live in the rural areas don’t support it ... we drive further to go to work,” said Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington.

He said that Miller’s plan might pass in the Senate, but would be a tough sell in the House of Delegates.

Serafini said he was open to looking at the idea of a regional tax, but did not support a statewide 3 percent increase in the gas tax.

That, he said, would put a strain on the economy and affect local businesses.

Serafini said the state would be fine if the money slated for transportation was used for transportation projects.

Instead, he said, more than $1 billion from the Transportation Trust Fund has been moved to the state’s general fund since 2009.

Del. Neil C. Parrott, R-Washington, echoed Serafini’s comments, saying proposed projects such as the Purple Line, a light-rail project that would connect Bethesda to New Carrollton, is one reason Miller is trying to get a gas tax increase.

Some of Miller’s ideas might be good options if they were meant for “good projects,” Parrott said.

But he called the Purple Line and a proposed light-rail project called the Red Line in Baltimore unnecessary.

“I think there are roads that need to be improved,” he said.

“Because we are raiding the Transportation Trust Funds, we are cheating our county, we are cheating all the municipalities ... every county in the state, every municipality in the state with the exception of the city of Baltimore,” Parrott said.

Public approval for an increase in the gas tax remains low.

According to a January poll by Gonzales Research and Marketing Services, only 26 percent of those polled statewide favor a 10-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase, while 73 percent oppose the idea.

About 64 percent of Democrats who were polled oppose an increase in the gas tax while 89 percent of Republicans disapproved of the idea.

“People want things, but they do not want to pay for it,” Young said.

That’s why giving the ability to counties to raise money through a sales tax on gasoline, such as the bill he has introduced in the current session, is an idea that might find favor, he said.

Terry L. Baker, president of the Washington County Commissioners, reacted cautiously to the idea of an increase in the gas tax and giving counties the ability to raise money from gas sales.

“I would like to see how much money is collected from Washington County residents through the gas tax ... and how that tax money is spent,” he said.

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