Officials Weigh Proposed Gas Tax Increase

BERLIN — With last week’s special session out of the way, pre-posturing for the 2012 General Assembly session, still months away, is already heating up with a couple of significant increases to taxes and fees recommended this week including a 15-cent hike on the state’s gas tax.

This week, the governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Transportation Funding recommended, among other things, a 15-cent increase in the state’s gasoline tax, phased in five-cent increments over the next three years. Maryland’s current gas tax rate at 23.5 cents per gallon has not been raised since 1992. The blue ribbon panel suggests raising the gas tax now will help close an $870 million deficit between revenue and funds needed to keep the state’s transportation infrastructure up and running.

In addition to the transportation package, including the proposed gas tax and other increases, state lawmakers this week were also urged to consider raising Maryland’s “flush tax” by 300 percent during the coming General Assembly session. While local representatives will not have to make a decision on the proposed hikes to taxes and fees for at least a couple of months, already they are forming strong opinions on the issues.

“The real dilemma is this economy, which continues to be stagnant,” said Sen. Jim Mathias (D-38). “Every day working people are suffering and to ask them to consider paying more for gasoline is a very difficult proposition.”

Mathias acknowledged raising some taxes and fees might be inevitable in order to keep the state’s crumbling infrastructure intact, but it doesn’t make it any easier to sell to an already weary public.

“The condition of our roads and the condition of our infrastructure is deteriorating and we can’t let that go to heck,” he said. “We’re really caught between a rock and a hard place. On top of that, it looks like the appropriation from the federal government will continue to decline.”

One recommendation by the task force would guarantee the revenue derived from a gasoline tax increase would be dedicated to roads and infrastructure. In recent years, state lawmakers have used the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) to make up for shortfalls in the General Fund, a situation that is unacceptable to Delegate Mike McDermott (R-38B).

“They can’t continue to come back to the same well over and over again and ask people to trust them,” he said. “They’ve taken a billion dollars from the Transportation Trust Fund to cover items in the General Fund, and that’s not even the full amount.”

While it did not see the light of day, a bill was introduced during last week’s special session that would have prevented the TTF from being raided for other purposes. It will almost certainly reappear during the regular session early next year, according to McDermott.

“There are no guarantees,” he said. “What happened to the last guarantee? How big of a hasp do we have to put on this box? Trust is the key word in Transportation Trust Fund. The government is the only entity I know of that can violate a trust anytime they want to.”

McDermott said many state lawmakers will likely attempt to sell the gas tax hike to the public on the promise of improved roads and infrastructure.

“They’re going to use that to get public support for the tax increase, then they are going to turn around and use the money for something else,” he said. “I want to introduce a bill making it against the law to use the word trust when creating a fund because the government simply is not trustworthy.”

Mathias acknowledged the TTF has been used for unintended purposes in recent years and hoped safeguards could be put in place to avoid a similar situation with revenue derived from the proposed tax increase.

“The working criticism for a number of years has been the raiding of the Transportation Trust Fund for other projects,” he said. “My hope is that we can protect that from happening and that the money that goes in there stays in there for its intended purpose.”

Route 113 is a project near and dear to Worcester residents and could stand to benefit from a gas tax hike, but McDermott contends the project should have been completed years ago.

“Route 113 is going to turn into a 50-year project,” he said. “If they paved just one mile a year, it would have been done 20 years ago. Doesn’t Worcester County rate one mile of four-lane a year?”

However, Mathias said the only reason Route 113 is still moving forward is because of the tough decisions on tax increases years ago.

“We’re very fortunate to have Route 113 still going forward right now,” he said. “They cut $2 billion from the transportation plan and that project stayed in there. That’s because Norm Conway made some very tough decisions when he voted for certain tax increases back in 2007.”

Nonetheless, getting people to buy into the need for a gas tax increase when everything else is going up is going to be a tough sell.

“To talk to people about paying more right now is not desirable. I get that. I’m a parent and a homeowner and a taxpayer and an employee. I don’t want to pay even a nickel more in gas tax, but I also don’t want to take a long detour around a road that collapsed,” Mathias said.