By Len Lazarick
Senate President Mike Miller and Speaker of the House of Delegates Michael Busch told a business audience Thursday that while they supported spending more on transportation infrastructure to create jobs, it will be difficult to get a majority vote for raising gas taxes and fees, especially since no Republicans would vote for them.
“We can’t do anything unless we get a majority vote,” Busch told a Maryland Chamber of Commerce conference in Cambridge.
And Miller said, “We’re going to have to pass a constitutional amendment” to create a lockbox for the Transportation Trust Fund to prevent that money from being used for other purposes. But Busch pointed out that such a lockbox amendment would require an even more difficult to achieve super-majority in both the House and the Senate.
“You can’t do it unless the business community is fully behind it,” Busch said. The chamber and other business groups have supported a gas tax hike to build roads in the past.
House and Senate Republican leaders made clear their long-standing opposition to any tax hikes.
“Now is not the right time to raise fees and taxes,” said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, Harford-Cecil, who has just stepped down as minority leader to pursue another office. “You can’t tax yourself into prosperity.”
House Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell, Calvert, agreed. He pointed out that “people can’t pay their bills” and their mortgages, even though many of the people in the hotel ballroom “don’t feel the pain.”
“Part of the challenge is how not to kill them,” O’Donnell said. Referring to the Democrats proposing higher taxes, he said, “I wish they spent as much time and energy in reducing the size and cost of government.”
O’Donnell said there was a simpler way to restore trust in the Transportation Trust Fund.
“Stop taking the money out of there that’s been put in there,” he said, receiving a round of applause from the audience.
In the past two years, O’Malley and the General Assembly have taken $676 million in local highway user revenues out of the trust fund and used it for general fund programs.
The GOP criticism stirred Miller’s ire, saying the Republicans were “down” on Maryland.
“Maryland is the number one goddamn state in the union,” Miller vented. “We’re not just a good state – we’re a great state.”
“We need infrastructure. It’s about quality of life,” Miller said. He called a gasoline tax hike “a necessary evil.” Miller has supported raising the gas tax for years, since it hasn’t been raised since 1992.
A transportation funding commission last week recommended raising Maryland gas tax 15 cents over three years. This would bring the tax to 38.5 cents a gallon, one of the highest rates in the nation.
Legislative party leaders also sparred over the recent $9.5 million grant to Bechtel Power Corp. to keep its 1,250 jobs from moving from Frederick to Virginia.
O’Donnell had opposed the grant from the Sunny Day fund, since the company was still moving 650 other jobs to Virginia. Busch pointed out that the vote on the Bechtel grant in the Legislative Policy Committee was 17-3. O’Donnell was one of the three.
Despite their partisan differences, there was one point all the legislators agreed upon. Any federal spending cuts approved by the congressional Supercommittee assigned to trim the deficit – or the more severe measures if the committee can’t agree – would have a severe impact on Maryland.
“We’re going to see huge cuts,” Miller said. “It’s going to be very, very difficult.”
Miller had little hope for a compromise, since congressional Republicans oppose any tax increases, and Democrats won’t support deep cuts without accompanying tax hikes.
“When it starts being cut, we’re going to be hurt,” O’Donnell said.
Busch said that some of the most severe cuts would come to Medicare and Medicaid. Many in Maryland, including patients, community hospitals, nursing homes and health care providers, would be impacted.