ANNAPOLIS – An amendment included in the tax plan passed by the House Thursday would allocate a portion of future budget surpluses to the Transportation Trust Fund, should the state borrow from that account again.
While it’s unlikely the modification would be triggered any time soon, given the state’s financial hardship, it is designed to replenish the $300 million Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. withdrew last year to balance the budget. It also would repay future diversions from the road and transit account, said the measure’s author, Delegate John R. Leopold, R-Anne Arundel.
“Transportation is the lifeblood of our communities,” Leopold said.
Now when the state sports a budget surplus, the first $10 million goes into the General Fund and the rest goes into the Rainy Day Fund, Leopold said.
His measure would require the state, starting next year, to devote the first $10 million of any surplus to the General Fund and the next $50 million to the Transportation Trust Fund. The state also would be required to replenish the $300 million Ehrlich removed.
Ehrlich has taken out more than $500 million from the Trust Fund since becoming governor in January 2003, Leopold said, adding that more than $700 million has been taken from the fund in the past 20 years.
“I think it’s a positive because it does show that there is concern (and) interest” in transportation, said Minority Leader George Edwards, R-Garrett.
Although it carried his Transportation Trust Fund plan, the House’s $1 billion tax package passed without Leopold’s vote. No Republicans supported the bill.
Now that the bill passed, Leopold said he hopes the amendment is not cut during House and Senate conferences to iron out differences in the revenue packages passed in each chamber. The amendment was needed to restore public trust in the government’s transportation initiatives, he said.
“People do not trust their government to spend their money on what it’s meant for,” Leopold said.
Another Leopold transportation fund idea — a constitutional amendment to prevent the use of money from the Transportation Trust Fund for anything other than transit or road projects except in emergencies — is stalled and Leopold said it will not pass.
In 2003, a task force headed by former Transportation Secretary William Hellmann studied Maryland’s transportation needs and determined that the state needed to invest $300 million annually in capital projects to begin meeting its road and transit requirements.
Leopold said his proposal is in tune with those recommendations.
In February, Ehrlich proposed $345 million in new funding for transportation in the form of fee increases and surcharges. Of that, he pledged $25 million to begin repaying money he borrowed from the trust fund.
The House Ways and Means Committee cut the proposal by about $100 million and the Senate stripped the budget of the $25 million down payment to the trust fund.
Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and the Environment, praised Leopold’s proposal.
Transportation advocates also lauded the initiative.
“I would say (the amendment is) one of the few pieces of good news we’ve gotten on transportation this session,” said John White, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “We thank him for being a leader and bringing transportation to the forefront.”