October 23, 2009

High transportation aid to city draws scrutiny

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By Len Lazarick
len@MarylandReporter.com

Del. Anthony O'Donnell

Why does Baltimore City routinely get as much of the state’s highway user revenues as the other 23 counties combined? That’s what House Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell wanted to know at the third hearing of the Joint Legislative Workgroup on State, County and Municipal Fiscal Relationships on Thursday.

Two hours into an eye-glazing presentation of a half-pound of data by the legislature’s fiscal analysts, O’Donnell, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s, decided to challenge why all the state’s multitude of funding formulas “appear to give great advantage to one jurisdiction,” as he explained in an interview later.

Baltimore City receives about 40 percent of the all the local highway user revenues in the state “because the city is responsible for [all the] roads within the city,” explained John Rohrer, fiscal and policy analysis coordinator with the Department of Legislative Services. Other local governments are not responsible for the maintenance of state roads within their borders.

“I think we need a better explanation of why it’s like that,” O’Donnell said, since the allocations around the rest of the state are based on the miles of local roads within a jurisdiction.

Until cuts by the legislature and the Board of Public Works this year, the city was slated to get $189 million and the counties $241 million, with $40 million going to municipalities. After the cuts took about 95 percent of the highway user money from the counties — leaving them with only $14 million — the city got $134 million, a 28 percent cut, but nearly 10 times what the rest of the state got.

Sen. Rich Madaleno, D-Montgomery, calmly tried to explain how the city maintains all the roads and highways in Baltimore, while the state maintains the state highways throughout the rest of the state.

“I don’t think it justifies their allocation,” O’Donnell shot back.

In an interview later, Sen. Ed DeGrange, D-Anne Arundel, chair of the Senate’s transportation budget committee, said the higher transportation payments to Baltimore City have been in place “going way back.” He said the heavy traffic volume in the city, particularly the heavy truck traffic, justifies some of the disparity.

The 18-member workgroup created by the Senate president and House speaker includes all the chairs of the fiscal committees in both houses, as well at the majority and minority leaders.

The first three sessions have been largely focused on collecting information about how all the funding formulas and allocations work. The meetings lay the groundwork for recommendations for changes, but those recommendations are not likely to come until after the 2010 session of the legislature, said Workgroup Co-chairwoman Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County.

“We haven’t done this in about 30 years,” Jones said. “We did piecemeal ad-hoc funding” over the years.

The higher level of state aid to Baltimore City has been well-known for years, documented in annual reports about state aid to the counties and municipalities.

In general, the formulas take revenues raised from wealthier counties and redistribute them to those with less resources, a point repeatedly made at Thurday’s hearing.

In fiscal 2010, the city will get $1,820 per capita in state aid, while wealthy Talbot County will get $470 per capita. Montgomery County will get $732 per capita, and the statewide average is $1,110.

The 104 pages of fiscal analysis in three reports from Thursday’s hearing are due to be posted on the General Assembly’s Web site.