ANNAPOLIS – It’s not just anti-tax Republicans who are opposed to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s recently unveiled gas tax plan. The governor also faces opposition from some rural Democrats who say their constituents would pay more and not get many benefits.
The gas tax is the largest source of revenue for the Transportation Trust Fund, which is used for transportation infrastructure projects. The fund does not have enough money to continue supporting existing infrastructure, let alone new roads, bridges and mass transit systems.
O’Malley proposed the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act of 2013, which would decrease the gas tax on consumers by 5 cents to 18.5 cents per gallon July 1. In its place, O’Malley’s plan would tack on a wholesale gas tax of 4 percent to be phased in over the next two years.
The plan is expected to bring in an additional $3.4 billion of revenue over the next five years.
But Democrats like Delegate John Wood Jr., of St. Mary’s, say their constituents have to drive more than those in more urban areas.
“Sometimes your next door neighbor is five miles down the road. We have to get in our trucks and drive,” Wood said.
He wants the state to wait until next year to do anything about transportation, and instead to put money back into the Transportation Trust Fund. Over the years, money from the fund has been used to plug holes in the state’s budget.
“If the state would put back what they owe, we could probably squeak by,” Wood said.
Wood said O’Malley’s plan would hurt rather than help Maryland generate more transportation funding because Marylanders would likely buy their gas and do most of their spending in Virginia or another border state.
“We come up suffering,” Wood said.
Sen. Roy P. Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, is also against O’Malley’s plan.
Dyson’s district has been especially hard hit by the federal sequester because of budget cuts at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, and military employees facing furloughs.
To hit them with a gas tax now would be a “double whammy,” Dyson said. “It doesn’t serve my constituents at all.”
Other rural Democrats said this was not an equitable solution to the transportation funding problem because their constituents tend to commute long distances for work, and the price of their goods would go up because of the rise in gas prices.
Republicans don’t like the Transportation Act, either.
Delegate Herb McMillan, R-Anne Arundel, described the plan as a Trojan horse that raises and perpetuates the gas tax without protecting the funds. He is worried because gas tax rates would never go down even if inflation decreased, which means the tax rate would only go up over time.
The tax would be indexed to inflation. If inflation increased, the tax would increase, but if inflation decreased or stayed the same, the tax rate would remain static.
“Indexing to inflation will cause hyperinflation,” McMillan said. “We won’t ever be voting on it again.”
Delegate Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, R-Talbot, finds a gas tax increase absolutely unnecessary and said “to introduce it on the 55th day (of the legislative session) is unbelievable.”
Though some rural legislators are against O’Malley’s plan, some rural Democrats are willing to consider it, such as Delegate Mary-Dulany James, D-Harford, who describes her district as an area transitioning from rural to suburban.
“We do need new revenue. I think we’re going to take a good look at it and give it a chance and see what’s best for the state,” James said.
Delegate Galen R. Clagett, D-Frederick, has some issues with the gas tax, but is willing to give it a chance.
He doesn’t like that the proposed gas tax is regressive, which means everyone pays the same.
Regressive taxes always end up hurting the little guy, Clagett said.
Clagett has his own ideas for funding transportation, which he thinks would be easier to pass than a gas tax increase.
One of his ideas is to make the Transportation Trust Fund into an infrastructure bank. This would be a non-lapsing revolving fund, in which private businesses and the state would share the responsibility of paying for infrastructure through loans and investments.
“It’s going to be hard as blazes to get a gas tax through,” Clagett said.
Democratic legislators from urban areas have more reason to support O’Malley’s transportation plan because in addition to roads, it would help pay for mass transit projects such as the Purple Line, a proposed light rail which would connect Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
“I support it,” said House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery. “It’s long overdue.”
In spite of some concerns legislators have about his bill, O’Malley is confident his Transportation Act will pass because both Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch support his plan.
“I think that the will is there,” O’Malley said.
The House version of the bill will be heard at 1 p.m. Friday by the Ways and Means Committee.