ANNAPOLIS – Some state lawmakers are tired of raids on Maryland’s transportation funding – more than $300 million was tapped recently to balance the state’s budget – and now they’re fighting to protect money for roads.
State residents should see transportation projects being produced if their taxes are going into the Transportation Trust Fund, the lawmakers said.
These lawmakers are backing a “firewall” bill that Delegate John R. Leopold, R-Anne Arundel, plans to introduce in the next legislative session, which begins Jan. 14.
Leopold’s bill would amend the Maryland Constitution to permit the state to take money out of the fund only for emergencies, ensuring the bulk of the money is used for its stated purpose – to build roads and bridges and improve transit.
“It is time to put the ‘trust’ back in the Transportation Trust Fund,” Leopold said in a Nov. 13 letter to the editor of The Sun of Baltimore.
The trust fund is fed by residents’ vehicle taxes, vehicle fees and money from bonds. It also consists of federal monies and other capital, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation.
From fiscal year 2003 to the end of fiscal year 2004, $315 million will have been transferred from the fund into the general fund, according to department staff.
The state’s Transportation Task Force, led by William Hellmann, recently looked at the possibility of raising the gas tax or increasing transportation fees to increase funding.
But Delegate Herb McMillan, R-Anne Arundel, is skeptical about raising some of these taxes.
“Without this constitutional amendment, raising the gas tax simply amounts to a slush fund tax increase,” McMillan said, “because there’s no guarantee that the gas tax increase will be used for transportation.”
Under Leopold’s bill, money could be released from the fund with a three-fifths vote of both the House of Delegates and Senate if Maryland suffers a military or terrorist attack or experiences a “major catastrophe.”
Even if such an emergency occurs, the governor would have to create a plan, approved by the General Assembly, to replenish the fund within five years.
Delegate Mary-Dulany James, D-Harford, supports the bill. She’s following in the footsteps of her father, then Senate President William S. James, who, with others, helped create the fund in the early 1970s.
The trust fund creators were praised for their “forward thinking,” said James, vice chairwoman of the Transportation and Environment subcommittee.
Leopold introduced a similar bill in the spring session, and while it received bipartisan support, it died in the House committee, he said.
Between 1984 and 2003, four transfers from the trust fund to the general fund have occurred totaling almost $500 million, according to a 2003 General Assembly analysis from the Department of Legislative Services. Just $77.2 million dollars has been transferred from the general fund into the trust fund from 1997 to 2001, said Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the transportation department.
The governor will wait to see if the bill receives a committee hearing in the House after his staff reviews it, said Henry Fawell, Ehrlich’s press secretary. – 30 – 12-12-03