ANNAPOLIS – The House Thursday gave tentative approval to a heavily modified version of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich’s $320 million transportation funding bill.
The Ways and Means Committee approved the measure Tuesday but not before slashing about $100 million from the governor’s proposal and letting the Judiciary Committee consider part of the bill that would generate funds for transportation through surcharges on drunken driving and moving violations.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s, has said he is not in favor of the surcharges.
Ways and Means also struck down a part of the bill that would have fully devoted $32 million generated by the rental car tax to the Transportation Trust Fund.
Delegates approved the committee’s changes to the bill and offered no further amendments on the floor Thursday, setting up what is likely a final vote on the package Friday.
The revised proposal has made no one happy. Democrats said the measure is inadequate and asks only state residents to pay for transportation projects rather than road users.
Republican House leaders said the bill will pass despite reluctance among some caucus members to embrace the governor’s proposed fee increases to fund road and transit projects.
Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and the Environment, calls the bill a car tax that would affect 4.4 million vehicles in Maryland.
“The (bill’s) substance is very bad because it’s regressive and exempts out-of-state people. But the politics are just unbelievable,” he said. “I’m voting against it and we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
Franchot, other Democrats and transportation advocates have pushed for an increase in the 23.5-cent gas tax to help fund transportation projects.
Ehrlich said the unstable global fuel situation makes the gas tax hike an impractical option.
He also said the increases in car registration fees, which haven’t been raised since 1987, compensate for inflation.
Transportation advocates said politics are getting in the way of proper transportation funding for Maryland.
AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John White, in a written statement, denounced the Senate’s Wednesday decision to cut $25 million Ehrlich earmarked for the Transportation Trust Fund in the fiscal year 2005 budget.
“Haggling over ways to fund Maryland’s transportation needs is understandable,” White said, “but the Senate’s proposed plan to cut the governor’s $25 million payback to the Transportation Trust Fund doesn’t make sense.”
The sum was a down payment on the $300 million Ehrlich borrowed from the Transportation Trust Fund last year to balance the budget, the governor has said.
Minority Whip Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Calvert, said he would have liked the Ways and Means Committee to pass Ehrlich’s bill intact.
Despite some initial opposition to the fee hikes, O’Donnell and Minority Leader George Edwards, R-Garrett, said the bill will pass without difficulty.
“I think it will breeze right through,” Edwards said. “I think the Republican caucus has been very supportive of the transportation package … We’re not thrilled that they took out the surcharges.”
O’Donnell said that although there were no floor amendments offered to revive the part of the bill that would have imposed surcharges for driving violations, the initiative is not dead.
“We may have another opportunity to look at those as well,” he said.