ANNAPOLIS, Md. (CBSDC/AP) — Rising gas prices and the need to tackle a tough state budget are creating mounting challenges for Gov. Martin O’Malley’s gas tax proposal, lawmakers said Friday, as the governor’s chief of staff worked to explain to lawmakers a part of the measure that would delay implementation if gas prices rise by more than 15 percent over the prior year.
Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, D-Baltimore, said the proposal is getting a chilly reception, particularly now that oil prices are approaching last year’s highs.
“Twenty-five degrees,” the senator said, with a laugh when asked what the temperature in Annapolis is for the proposal now. “No, to be honest with you, it’s that cold.”
On Friday, the average for a gallon of gasoline hit $3.65 both in Maryland and nationally according to AAA. It is the highest national average ever for this time of year.
O’Malley, a Democrat, is backing legislation to phase in a 6 percent sales tax by 2 percent a year on top of the state’s 23.5-cents per gallon tax, which was last raised in 1992. The proposal would raise the price of gas by about 6 cents a gallon in the first year, 12 cents in the second year and about 18 cents in the third year. It would raise about $613 million annually after fully implemented.
McFadden, who is on the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said lawmakers are getting a lot of calls from Maryland residents on the issue, as they have been on the recently approved bill to legalize same-sex marriage.
“After the same-sex discussion, push back on the gas tax is considerable and it’s ratcheted up in the last week or so,” McFadden said, citing rising gas prices.
Matthew Gallagher, O’Malley’s chief of staff, briefed the Prince George’s County delegation on Friday with members of the state’s transportation department, and he said they provided a similar briefing for the Montgomery County delegation last week. Gallagher has described lawmakers as being very interested in part of the bill that would delay a 2 percent increase, if gas prices rise by more than 15 percent over the prior year.
“It’s there in anticipation of this issue, and I think people are going to have concerns about price volatility so we really tried to anticipate that issue and try to build this element in to try to offer some reassurances to legislators and to the public,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher also said he thinks lawmakers are very aware of the state’s need for more transportation revenue.
“I think there is an awareness about significant need for funding and an awareness that nothing has happened on this in 20 years,” Gallagher said.
Delegate Tawanna Gaines, D-Prince George’s, said lawmakers definitely are aware of the need for transportation infrastructure, but they are concerned about the cost the proposal would bring to Maryland residents who are still struggling in the aftermath of the recession.
“They understand that it’s needed,” Gaines said, referring to the state’s large backlog in transportation projects. “They get that, but they basically believe that you can’t get blood out of a turnip. It’s going to be a very, very tough sell.”
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who supports new revenues for transportation projects, said the measure’s fate will depend on how hard the governor wants to push it the legislation in cooperation with the General Assembly.
“I’m not going to take my cavalry over a cliff,” Miller, D-Calvert, said. “It’s got to be the governor, the speaker, myself, the House and the Senate working together to accomplish a goal.”
Miller also noted that O’Malley’s budget proposal is a challenging one, with other tax increases aiming not only to balance the state’s books this year, but also to reduce a $1.1 billion ongoing deficit by half.
“Right now, I’m worried about my chances of ending the session on time and getting a budget adopted,” Miller said.
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