By Beccas Heller
The intensely debated gas tax hike electrified the house floor on Friday moving many delegates to speak who “hadn’t planned on standing up.” The two hour debate, culminated in a hotly disputed vote (See blog), ultimately passing 76 votes to 63.
HB 1515 raises Maryland’s gas tax by at least 10 cents per gallon or more over the next two years, indexing it to inflation, with aims to fund mass transit projects and highway improvements.
Republican delegates united against the bill, passionately citing constituents who had contacted them with concerns about their financial future impacted by a tax hike and denouncing it as “political terrorism.”
“You know it’s time to stop lying to the public, letting them believe that somehow their opinion matters,” said Del. Don Dwyer, R-Anne Arundel County. “Because we all know that what we’re going to do is that this bill is going to pass -- more than likely -- and then we’re going to go home and pretend that we fought like hell against it.”
Criticism, support ran wide and deep
Criticism for the bill ran wide and deep -- from economic doubts to questions of accountability and concern for the poor. Arguments for the increase in transportation funding suggested that the bill would provide solutions -- not problems -- in these areas.
The theme of “advocating for the poor” was taken up by both sides of the body, with some arguing that the tax would unfairly disenfranchise the poor and others arguing that it would give low-income communities access to the better, more reliable public transportation.
“I know something about working families and single moms -- I was raised by one,” said Del. Ben Barnes, D-Prince George’s. “I remember her being stuck in traffic while I was stuck in childcare. And I remember when she got that job in D.C. -- and what a godsend it was to her to be able take mass transit into work.”
Barnes and several others emphasized the role that mass transit played in empowering low-income communities, giving the poor access to do the same things as other people, regardless of their ability to own a car.
Increase would affect more than gasoline prices
On the other side, opponents of the bill asserted that the tax increase would be reflected, not just at the gas pump, but on the shelves of grocery stores and other businesses, making basic goods more expensive for families already struggling financially.
Many critics of the bill cited its lack of accountability.
“In my opinion a transportation bill, should protect the Transportation Trust Fund, it should align it with the needs of Marylanders, and it should restore funding that is needed to build the infrastructure that our citizens want and need,” said Del. Herb McMillan, R-Anne Arundel. “But this doesn’t do that. It doesn’t have a lock box...it’s more like a wet paper bag that a hamster could bust out of.”
Other critics of the bill accused Gov.Martin O’Malley of gravely mismanaging the budget in the past, leading to a deficit in the transportation fund, and framed the bill as O’Malley’s way of making up for his mistakes -- at the cost of the taxpayers.
Others stood firmly in support of the bill, citing the desperate need for improvement in Maryland’s infrastructure.
Poor maintenance has led to bridge collapses elsewhere
Del. Frank Turner, the Democratic floor leader of the bill as vice-chair of the Ways and Means Committee, warned of the dangers of being “reactive” as opposed to “proactive.” He pointed to the poor state of many of Maryland’s bridges and cited catastrophes in other states that had resulted from poor upkeep of bridges.
“HB 1515 will do some good...but it will do far greater damage,” said Del. Nick Kipke, R-Anne Arundel. “It is irresponsible to pass HB 1515 because it will depress our economy, it will depress our citizens, and it will throw salt into the wound of our economic situation.”