ANNAPOLIS – Thirty-one Democrats crossed party lines Friday and helped Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s transportation bill eke out final approval in the House of Delegates, 72 to 69.
Minority Whip Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Calvert, lauded the almost unanimous Republican support for the governor’s bill.
“It doesn’t get much stronger,” he said.
Several House Republicans balked at first at the governor’s plan to raise millions for transportation through increases in vehicle registration fees and surcharges.
The Ways and Means Committee passed the bill Tuesday, but not before the panel slashed the governor’s original $320 million proposal by about $100 million.
The committee also struck down part of the bill devoting $32 million from the rental car tax to the Transportation Trust Fund and decided to let the Judiciary Committee consider a part of the bill to raise funds through surcharges on moving- and drunken-driving violations.
When it was time to vote, though, the need to fund road and transit improvements drove 31 Democrats and 41 of 43 Republicans to vote in favor of the bill, O’Donnell said.
“Many of our members had reasonable concerns,” he said. “Their confidence in the governor saved the day.”
Minority Leader George Edwards, R-Garrett, said some Democrats voted for the bill because they have pending transportation projects in their districts.
“I’m sure some voted with the fact that they have … some projects that the only way they’re going to get funded is to get some new funding in the program,” he said.
Transportation Secretary Robert Flanagan said he was pleased with the narrow victory and upbeat about the bill’s future in the Senate.
“I’m very optimistic,” he said. “What is driving this is that we have very serious needs for transportation improvement in the state of Maryland and it’s recognized by almost all legislators.”
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said Democrats with pending projects in their districts were allowed to work with and support the governor’s bill.
The goal never was to defeat the measure, Busch said.
Still, he supported other initiatives to generate revenue for transportation projects including a gas tax hike and a 1-cent increase in the title fee for new vehicles.
Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and the Environment, said the House passed a very unfair car tax.
“It’s a Republican plan and some Democrats went along with it,” he said. “… I think that what happened was that some of them had projects that they got promises for. The dilemma is that there’s not enough money in there to fulfill the promises that were made.”
Republicans will now have to face criticism for approving hikes in the registration fees of $23.50 a year for light vehicles and $36 a year for heavy vehicles, Franchot said.
The car tax may turn into a political liability for the governor especially as millions of people will begin to feel the large fee increases in 2006, an election year, he said.
“I think ultimately it’s going to torpedo his re-election,” he said, citing a recent backlash against the car tax in other states around the country.
Anne Arundel Delegates Herbert H. McMillan and John R. Leopold were the two Republicans who turned down Ehrlich’s measure.
Leopold has proposed a constitutional amendment to permit Transportation Trust Funds to be used only to pay for transit or road projects, except in emergencies.
McMillan said he took a pledge not to support taxes and said the governor’s proposal was “less of a fee increase than a tax increase.”
But Flanagan dismissed criticism from Democrats and speculation over the bill’s political ramifications.
“I think it will be a political plus when the people see that the governor has taken (the lead) in addressing transportation problems,” he said. “He campaigned on a promise to get Maryland moving and he’s delivering on that promise.”