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The Tentacle


May 30, 2007

A Pain in the Gas

Kevin E. Dayhoff

With the Memorial Day weekend behind us, so begins the summer driving season. Increasingly a critical part of the summer getaway calculus is congested roadways and the cost of gasoline.

An addition to this equation is the 800-pound pothole in the middle of the road, Maryland's structural deficit and a Transportation Trust Fund that is short by only about - ah, $40 billion; and there is really no clear relief in sight. And yes, that was a "B" as in billion.

Whether it is a trip to the mountains, the beach or over to grandma's house, traveling in Maryland is a series of petty annoyances that have grown into a major hassle.

The cash cow from which all transportation solutions spring forth in Maryland is the Transportation Trust Fund. It began in 1971 and it is a high-octane witch's brew of the gas tax and motor vehicle registration fees, taxes, and licenses.

This lemon has been a political football ever since it rolled off the assembly line.

Many of us outside the Baltimore-Washington urban areas have long since understood the Transportation Trust Fund as yet another manifestation of Maryland's feudal structure of government. A quality of life redistribution system in which those in the rural areas of the state have large portions of their tax dollars redirected from their communities for the benefit of the Baltimore and Washington areas.

Of course, along with the population concentrations in those areas comes the bulk of the representation in the Maryland General Assembly; and therein lies a huge pothole when it comes to solutions for roads in rural areas.

Not to be overlooked is that the highly congested (and populated) urban areas of the state have an inordinate ability to elect a governor and the rest of the state has, in fact, very little say in the matter.

Of course, much of the current state structural deficit comes from the $1.3 billion "Thornton" school-aid plan, which the Maryland General Assembly passed in April 2002. The Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act was signed into law on May 2002 by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and called for the funding to be phased in over the following six years.

There was only one small problem with the legislation at the time - it was not funded.

And remember, according to the model of Maryland's feudal form of government, the impetus for "Thornton" was the ACLU "Bradford" case filed in December 1994 against the State of Maryland to force an increase in state funding for Baltimore City schools.

If you will recall, much of the feudal government model began in the 1960s when rural Maryland lost the ability to maintain a substantial voice in the Maryland Senate by way of the unintended consequences of the landmark 1962 U. S. Supreme Court case, "Baker v. Carr." That case declared unconstitutional unequally sized congressional districts.

Seems reasonable enough. But the case was then used as precedent in state representative apportionment; and in June 1964 the Supreme Court ruled that both houses of all state legislatures had to also be apportioned on the basis of population and not political subdivision.

Before Maryland addressed the subsequent reapportionment in the Maryland Senate in the late 1960s, required by the court ruling, most counties in Maryland had, (with a few exceptions) two senators. Since legislation needs to pass both houses in the General Assembly, the less populated rural areas of the state ultimately had a say in the outcome of any particular initiative.

Just a few short years later, the Transportation Trust Fund - road building and maintenance funding scheme - was hatched.

This may seem a bit arcane; but it was brought to our attention because increasingly the solution to the Transportation Trust Fund deficit being discussed is raising the gas tax on top of the current high price of gasoline.

What gives the idea of raising the gas tax a flat tire locally? Before anyone starts cranking up the political engine to get a tax increase past the urban voters - and the legislature - it is obvious that those of us in the rural areas will probably not see any improvements in local transportation.

More than likely, all the money will go to where the representation in the General Assembly is - and the votes for governor are - the Baltimore-Washington areas.

The gas tax in Maryland has not been raised since 1992 - when it was raised five cents per gallon. It is currently 23.5-cents per gallon. The national average is 17.9 cents for state gasoline taxes. Once you add state and federal taxes together, Marylanders pay a total of 41.9 cents per gallon.

Last March, state Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller (D., Prince George's/Calvert) introduced legislation to raise the gas tax by more than 50 percent, to 35.5 cents a gallon.

But the engine to propel that initiative had a dead battery during the past session - as did any juice to address any the state's budgetary woes by cutting back profligate spending.

According to various published accounts, every penny of gas tax raises $30 to $35 million and the idea of introducing a gas tax increase in the next legislative session is again being jump-started.

Raising the gas tax to 35.5 cents will place Maryland with the 4th highest in the nation.

Barely a penny of the increased gasoline tax revenue will be plowed back into the central Maryland area, or into much of any rural area for that matter.

And, as if there aren't enough other sound reasons to vigorously oppose any increase in the gas tax, one needs to look no farther than their local roads, which will not benefit in any manner.

Just say no to any increase in the gas tax. And just say no to the further perpetuation of Maryland's feudal tax dollar redistribution system.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at: kdayhoff@carr.org



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