Tag Archives: gasoline tax

Maryland’s New Taxes: Why Now?

By Barry Rascovar / July 2, 2013

TAXES ON GASOLINE in Maryland went up 3.5 cents on Monday; crossing toll bridges and tunnels got a lot more expensive, especially for truckers. Fees to combat stormwater pollution kicked in as well in the greater Baltimore-Washington area.

Higher gas taxesIt’s a big pill to swallow, even in a state whose leaders have felt no compunction about raising over 40 taxes, especially on businesses and the well-too-do, during the O’Malley-Brown reign in Annapolis.

Yes, the fees and taxes that commenced July 1 are necessary over the long run. We may not like it, but progress comes with a price.

Land of Toxic Living?

Would we rather watch bridges collapse, beltway congestion mushroom and pollution of streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay turn Maryland into the “Land of Toxic Living”?

It’s the timing and the size of these tax increases that are so terrible.

The burden imposed on businesses and non-profits is harmful and counter-productive. Critics have a right to mock the state’s chief executive by cynically shouting: “Pile high the taxes, Martin!”

Wait Till Later

Even worse, the first stage of the gasoline tax in Maryland pales compared with future increases dictated under the new law that could total 65 cents. The cries of anguish and anger will dog the next administration in Annapolis — a gift from the departing governor.

It didn’t have to play out this way.

A thoughtful, practical and courageous approach by political leaders in the Maryland State House would have led to action much sooner. That would have meant smaller levies phased in over time and two decades of transportation and environmental upgrades.

A Better  Way

It’s no surprise that more must be spent today to stem pollution caused by stormwater runoff. If Maryland had acted sooner, the fees would have been more modest and the remediation would have been cheaper.

Instead, O’Malley & Co. waited . . . and waited . . . and waited until the Environmental Protection Agency strong-armed Maryland and other nearby states to commit to big pollution cleanups.

It also was no surprise Maryland needed more money to repair dilapidated bridges and highways. Yet no governor and no legislature in the last 20 years had the courage to do the right thing..

Gone With The Wind

Instead, they took the Scarlett O’Hara approach: They put off difficult decisions until Maryland faced a transportation crisis and construction costs had soared.

As a result, Marylanders face a raft of gas tax increases that eventually will make this state one of the costliest in the nation at the pump. The new tolls for some truckers are so severe it may put their businesses in jeopardy.

Governors and legislators also dramatically raised the cost for fixing transportation and environmental shortcomings by waiting.

Parris Didn’t Get It

Had Gov. Parris Glendening overcome his political trepidation and acted in the best, long-term interests of Maryland he would have insisted in the 1990s on a gas tax increase tied to inflation. He also would have imposed modest fees to stem sewage plant and stormwater pollution of the Chesapeake.

The same can be said of Bob Ehrlich, who jacked up transportation licensing fees instead of biting the bullet with a far larger tax increase at the pump. He deserves credit, though, for imposing an unpopular “flush tax” to modernize sewage treatment plants. It didn’t win him points with conservatives — and hurt his reelection chances — but it was the right thing to do.

O’Malley failed to seize his moment (“carpe diem”) in 2007 when he had a golden chance to ram through a gas tax increase along with slots legalization. A small environmental cleanup fee could have been tacked on at that time, too.

So Many Missed Opportunities

We could have averted the current round of tax hikes but no one in the State House took the high road. They worried about re-electability instead of Maryland’s long-term viability.

We would have had better roads and bridges, too, and a cleaner Chesapeake Bay had our political leaders acted wisely in the past. Two decades of progress in transportation and the environment were lost.

Our leaders haven’t been very courageous. We’re paying the price for that today.

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Political Dimensions of Jim Smith’s New Job

Jim Smith

By Barry Rascovar / June 2, 2013

BY CHOOSING former Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith as Maryland’s new transportation secretary, Gov. Martin O’Malley solved multiple problems, especially for his governor-in-waiting, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

O’Malley left the top MDOT post vacant for nearly a year. Smith, apparently, had been the governor’s choice but never accepted until after the governor did the heavy lifting in pushing a multi-year gas tax increase through the General Assembly, After all, what fun would it be to serve as MDOT secretary without $$$ to upgrade Maryland’s transportation network?

Smith has modest experience dealing with state legislative issues outside of Baltimore County delegation matters. He has minimal background in the inner workings of the statewide transportation program and its political underpinnings. He would have been of little use to O’Malley in lining up votes for a hefty gas tax increase.

Now it’s a different story. The gas tax rises by four cents a gallon on July 1 and there’s much more to come in future years. There will be a steady flow of construction announcements and ribbon cuttings. It’s a great time to be Maryland’s transportation boss.

Smith brings administrative skills to the job. He’s also a fiscal conservative, which means projects that bring the biggest bang for the buck will take priority. And he’s a first-rate political operator who knows how to massage egos and quietly seek common ground.

It’s an ideal landing spot for Smith, who sorely missed public service. It’s one of the most important posts in Maryland.

In selecting Smith, O’Malley did a big favor for his lieutenant governor. Smith might have ended up running on Attorney General Doug Gansler’s ticket next year, which would have aided Gansler in the Baltimore suburbs on election day.

But now Smith is locked into the O’Malley-Brown administration. If he wants to keep his job after 2014, Smith knows he’s got to working tirelessly to elect Brown. That could prove pivotal in Baltimore County, which often decides state elections. Smith also has a good chunk of campaign cash lying around, which might help Brown gain name recognition.

O’Malley owed Smith big-time, Without Smith’s hard work and vocal support for the Baltimore mayor, O’Malley might have lost in 2006 to incumbent Gov. Bob Ehrlich. In that election, Smith managed to hold Ehrlich to a draw in his home county, which locked up the race for O’Malley.

The governor has re-paid Smith with perhaps the biggest plum in state government. For at least the next 18 months, Jim Smith will be a big wheel in Annapolis.

 

O’Malley’s success echoes Mandel’s 1972 triumph

Monumental victories 4 decades apart show how MD’s politics, demographics have changed

By Barry Rascovar

April 11, 2013 / The Baltimore Sun

Forty-one years ago, Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel pulled off a series of staggering triumphs that The Sun compared to winning the Triple Crown: Maryland’s first gun-control law; a unique, state-run auto insurance agency; and a higher gasoline tax to support Baltimore’s first rapid rail line.

He achieved this in the face of ferocious opposition from the National Rifle Association and the insurance and trucking industries. It took Mr. Mandel’s enormous persuasive skills — including arm-twisting and deal-making — to win those monumental battles.

Fast-forward to this week’s legislative wrap-up. To quote Yogi Berra, it was “déjà vu all over again.” Despite intense resistance, Gov. Martin O’Malley captured his own Triple Crown: a more restrictive gun-control statute, a package of gasoline tax increases and abolition of the death penalty.

Raising the gas tax this session was more difficult, and unpopular, than in 1972, when a gallon of petrol cost 55 cents. Abolishing capital punishment required an enormous number of one-on-one discussions to convince lawmakers this ultimate penalty no longer made sense. It was the kind of determined dialogue Mr. Mandel thrived on.

Thanks to the Newtown school massacre in December, which coalesced public opinion behind firearms restrictions, this year’s gun-control battle in Annapolis was loud but less intense that the 1972 showdown.

Two governors celebrated monumental victories four decades apart. They did it in vastly different ways, though, reflecting a sea change in Maryland since the days of the Nixon-Agnew presidency.

Mr. Mandel’s power came from his unrivaled mastery of the General Assembly. He recruited a lobbying team of irregulars that included a railroad engineer from Cecil County (who kept rural legislators in line), two slick Baltimore attorneys (who dealt with the area’s old-style politicos) and a scion of a South Baltimore political machine. They were the governor’s hammer.

For important bills, Mr. Mandel added the genteel lobbying of his lieutenant governor, Blair Lee III (to woo Montgomery County compatriots); his secretary of state, Fred Wineland (a force in Prince George’s County politics) and the state’s first transportation secretary (and future governor), Harry Hughes.

Rural and suburban conservatives held far more power back then, making Mr. Mandel’s task harder than Mr. O’Malley’s. Sometimes he secured votes by backing a lawmaker’s pet project, generously dispensing race track passes, or dangling the prospect of patronage jobs.

During the 1972 session, entire county delegations would march off the House floor and up the marble stairs to the governor’s office for a reminder of what was at stake.

Mr. Mandel knew how to win over lawmakers. He also excelled at obfuscation — seemingly indicating support for a legislator’s wishes while never fully committing to the specifics. In 10 years as governor, he rarely suffered a defeat.

Mr. O’Malley hasn’t been as fortunate. He was deeply embarrassed by the General Assembly’s failure last year to pass the state budget on time. It took two special sessions to straighten out the mess, followed by a nasty referendum battle involving four O’Malley-passed bills.

The governor’s luck changed this year. He got big assists from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who stopped feuding and started cooperating. The veteran presiding officers were at the top of their game — revising unpopular aspects of the governor’s bills and then lining up the necessary votes.

Mr. O’Malley chipped in by staying at home and getting actively involved in lobbying. That differed from last year, when he spent much time campaigning out of state for President Barack Obama.

Sharp population changes in the past four decades provided Mr. O’Malley with a winning edge in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. Legislative power now resides in the populous urban-inner suburbs where minorities and liberal voters dominate: Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and the Baltimore region. It made his job much easier.

O’Malley and his allies (the NAACP, gun-control groups and the business community) used persuasive arguments, not arm-twisting. Then the governor locked in the support he needed by agreeing to help Prince George’s build a new hospital, Baltimore build new schools and Montgomery build a new Metro line. Obviously, the quid pro quo continues its role a useful political tool.

His victories this session mark a high point for Mr. O’Malley’s administration. He made it happen in his seventh year as governor through hard work, close cooperation with Messrs. Miller and Busch and an improved grasp of legislative dynamics.

It was an updated version of Mr. Mandel’s 1972 triumphs and sets Mr. O’Malley apart from most of his predecessors.

Barry Rascovar, a former deputy editorial page editor at The Sun, covered the 1972 General Assembly session for the paper and has been a commentator on state politics and government ever since. His email is brascovar@hotmail.com.

Looking back at the General Assembly

By Barry Rascovar / The Community Times / April 17, 2013

While we await this spring’s locust and stinkbug invasions, let’s be grateful for the disappearance of another pest — the Maryland General Assembly.

After deliberating for three months, state lawmakers finished their work having done little damage and possibly even some good.

Sure, the cost of gasoline jumps by four cents a gallon in July but we’re so used to seeing daily pump prices fluctuate that the extra tax bite could go largely unnoticed.

On the positive side, this tax increase paves the way for more bridge and state highway work and a new rapid rail line from Woodlawn to downtown.

The gun-control bill that passed contains the same sort of good news, bad news. It will be much tougher for budding criminals and unstable individuals to purchase a gun. Ammunition clips of more than 10 rounds will be banned along with most assault-style weapons.

Hunters won’t be impacted by the new law; anyone with a clean record can still buy an unlimited supply of firearms. But in seeking to crack down on the ability of ‘bad guys’ to buy heavy firepower weapons, the legislature restricted gun sales and put an arm of government – the State Police – in charge of determining whose applications get rejected.

New restrictions also make it costly to chat on your cell phone while driving. Delegates and senators gave police the right to fine drivers seen holding a cell phone to their ear. Only when stopped at a light or stalled in traffic will it be legal to do so.

Another bill approved by the General Assembly will make it easier to cast early ballots next year. There will be three or four new early-voting sites in Baltimore County, perhaps even one in Owings Mills. Two more days of early voting were added — for a total of eight — and these sites will be open 12 hours a day. Anything that makes voting convenient improves representative democracy. On this bill, lawmakers did us a big favor.

There’s also a chance Baltimore County will adopt the approach to school construction Baltimore City successfully advocated in the State House this year: A joint state-city funding program that permits outdated schools to be rapidly replaced over the next decade. Playing copycat would make sense for the county.

Unfortunately, lawmakers failed to reverse a misguided decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals regarding pit bulls, which it labeled “inherently dangerous.” This makes pit bull owners and even apartment operators who rent to tenants with these dogs vulnerable to liability lawsuits.

That could lead to heartbreak as pit bull owners and their children are forced to give up their animals or face eviction. It’s a situation that should have been fixed by legislators but the powerful trial lawyers won on this one — and the dog owners lost.

Barry Rascovar is a writer and communications consultant living in Reisterstown. He can be reached at brascovar@outlook.com.

Gas tax unpopular yet necessary

By Barry Rascovar / The Community Times / April 3, 2013

No one likes it, which is why Marylanders haven’t seen a gas-tax increase in over 20 years. That’s about to change.

With final passage last Friday of a transportation revenue bill, state legislators set in motion a four-cent jump in gasoline prices come July. This will be followed by increases in later years so that by 2016 we’ll be paying 13 cents to 20 cents more per gallon.”

We’ve gotten used to sudden leaps in fuel prices. Those increases, though, fattened profits for Big Oil companies and OPEC nations. At least this time the money will stay in Maryland.

The revenue raised – $4.4 billion over six years – will revive the state’s depleted transportation construction program. That means more dollars for interstate improvements, bridge repairs and the Red Line mass-transit extension from Woodlawn to Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

This $2 billion rapid rail line will be the linchpin of Baltimore’s disorganized rapid rail system. The Red Line will give county residents on the west side – Randallstown homeowners take note – a quick, hassle-free way to travel into the city for business and pleasure.

Dundalk and Essex residents, meanwhile, will have a short drive to the Bayview rail terminus for downtown or westside commutes.

The big bonus is that this east-west transit line will tie together both the Light Rail Line and the existing Owings Mills-to-Johns Hopkins Medical Center Metro.

This means Owings Mills and Pikesville residents can commute by rail to their jobs at Social Security headquarters in Woodlawn or to the nearby Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. It means city residents can hop on the Red Line, transfer to the Light Rail Line and wind up at work in Hunt Valley.

It means much easier travel options to Orioles and Ravens games, entertainment venues and downtown dining spots.

Without the gas-tax increase, none of this is possible. Maryland politicians consistently ran away from a gas-tax vote. This is the first time in two decades there has been enough support to pay for transportation improvements.

What made the difference?

Time was running out to prove to federal officials that Maryland would put up its share of the money to build the Red Line and the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs. Without a commitment this year, both projects would have been shelved.

Legislators also weren’t about to vote to raise the gas tax in 2014, an election year. So this was Gov. Martin O’Malley’s last chance to solve the state’s worsening transportation situation before leaving office.

The price of progress is never easy to accept when it’s coming out of your own pocket. For now, this move is quite unpopular. The good news is that the benefits will become obvious in coming years.

Barry Rascovar is a writer and communications consultant living in Reisterstown. He can be reached at brascovar@outlook.com.