Donald Fry: Transportation funding bills get attention in Annapolis, but face major hurdles

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Two key transportation funding bills will surface in Annapolis during the next two weeks, but they must overcome significant hurdles to gain passage.

Both the Maryland House of Delegates and the Senate of Maryland have scheduled hearings on legislation that would create a “firewall” to protect the state’s Transportation Trust Fund from being raided by lawmakers seeking to plug budget holes or for other non-transportation purposes. The legislation would also increase the gasoline tax rate and other fees that go into the transportation fund.

If enacted, the measures would put an end to 27 years of raids during which state lawmakers have transferred more than $1.5 billion from the state’s transportation fund to the general fund for non-transportation uses – mostly to balance the state’s budget.

On March 1, the House Ways and Means Committee will hear HB1001, sponsored by Montgomery County Democrat C. William Frick and 36 co-sponsors, which would make the “firewall” a constitutional amendment. It would also raise the gas tax rate by 10 cents, index the gas tax for inflation, and raise the state’s vehicle registration fees.

The bill’s companion legislation in the Senate, SB714, sponsored by Montgomery County Senator Robert J. Garagiola and 13 co-sponsors, will be heard by the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee on March 9.

The hearings will be held two weeks after Maryland’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Funding issued a report calling unequivocally for legislative action to protect the state's Transportation Trust Fund. The commission, on which I serve, also recommended that lawmakers raise $800 million in net new annual funding for transportation through a combination of $600 million in new revenue initiatives that can be leveraged to provide $200 million in new bond sales. It further recommended that the state restore local government transportation funding that the state has begun diverting to its general fund.

Lawmakers’ habitual raiding of the stagnant Transportation Trust Fund and the more than $40 billion backlog of state transportation projects that are planned but not funded for construction prompted the recent formation of a statewide coalition of transportation advocates – the State Transportation Alliance to Restore the Trust (START) – to campaign for enacting a firewall, raising new transportation revenue, and returning highway user funding to local governments.

START now has 52 participating organizations and businesses from across Maryland. Participating organizations include the Greater Baltimore Committee, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, AAA Maryland, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, and the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance. The coalition also includes companies such as CSX, EBA Engineering, RK&K, STV Incorporated, and the Terminal Corporation. This underscores the breadth and depth of concern in our state over the lack of urgency that has existed in Annapolis regarding transportation funding.

Governor Martin O'Malley was quoted in news reports last week as saying that he "could" support new revenues if proposed by lawmakers and hinting that he might even consider supporting a transportation funding firewall. He noted, however, that a firewall alone would not generate more transportation revenue.

Governor O’Malley is right about that. But transportation advocates, including members of the START coalition, firmly believe that a lockbox must be given serious consideration if legislation increasing transportation revenue is to have any credibility with voters. Without some sort of spending restrictions – either a constitutional amendment or equivalent legislation placing significant restraints on use of transportation funds – how will voters be able to trust any action by lawmakers to increase transportation funding, given the 25-year history of borrowing from it for non-transportation purposes.

In today’s atmosphere of post-traumatic recession shock that prevails in Annapolis, advocates for these transportation bills face several major impediments. First, lawmakers are being asked to pass lockbox legislation that would restrict the use of one of their favorite “back pocket” sources of budget-balancing funding.

Even more of a challenge may be the fact that there are only a handful of lawmakers left under the State House dome who were there in the days when passing a gas tax rate increase to keep up with inflation was a routine legislative act. Of 188 lawmakers, only 25 – a mere 13 percent –were in the General Assembly in 1992, which was the last year that the gas tax rate was increased.

The rest have never faced a vote for a gas tax that has been the staple of Maryland’s – and the country’s – transportation funding formula for decades.

This raises a key question for today’s lawmakers, most of whom acknowledge the dire straits in which our transportation fund finds itself.

“If not the gas tax, then what?”

For the sake of our state’s post-recession infrastructure and economy, we all need to agree soon on the answer.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

Previous Center Maryland columns by Donald C. Fry:

Tapping into Maryland’s potential for innovation

A 23-year old leadership lesson from the Persian Gulf

Gauging the business contribution to state government funding

How the state lost its way on transportation funding

Budget proposal will be first big 2011 defining moment for lawmakers

GBC to lawmakers: ‘Make job creation and business growth top session priority’

Helping city’s new prosecutor implement a vision

A culture of ‘giving back’ lives in Maryland’s business community

Budget challenges will test government’s capacity for strategic planning

Facing the disconnect over the concept of ‘business climate’

Tax commission delivers refreshing change of pace

‘Reform’ commission to mull tax increase for Maryland corporations

No tsunami in Maryland, but voters deliver ripple of transition

Why isn’t transportation infrastructure crisis on lawmakers’ radar?

Market expert tells a pre-Halloween scary story

Entrepreneurs provide inspiration in a recession

Military is driving Maryland’s anticipated biggest economic spurt in 60 years

MedImmune CEO frames bright future for bioscience

Making transportation a top-tier priority

Primary voters in a mood for transition

Reading Maryland's fiscal tea leaves

Getting beyond sound bites and bumper stickers

Biotech tax credit more popular than ever, but the ‘rock-concert’ lines are gone

Bad timing for upcoming business tax report

For economic indicators, the ‘whipsaw’ effect continues

Do census data foretell a Baltimore city population rebound?

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New report ranks Baltimore among stronger regions to weather the recession

New living wage proposal: wrong idea, wrong time for Baltimore

Northeast needs more attention from federal rail planners

New national report has familiar ring for Maryland bioscience advocates

New report underscores Maryland’s work force development challenges

State’s health initiative: a ‘win-win’ for employers and their workforces

As Baltimore hikes taxes, are state’s counties next?

After the ‘fiber from heaven’ scramble, what’s next?

BRAC growth no longer a future event – it’s happening now

Economic development is a contact sport

Despite the recession, bioscience growth still percolates in Baltimore

State stumbles in enacting new education collective bargaining process

Wind power has potential in Maryland, but solar emerges as early renewable option

It's not good to be clueless in cyberspace

Amid fiscal shuffle, Maryland lawmakers pass measures to spur business growth

Thankfully, Baltimore leads with substance over style in luring Google

Leave damaging transportation provisions out of the budget

Amended budget continues recession-induced fund shifts and stimulus rescue

General Assembly setting stage for combined reporting push in 2011

Wrong timing for proposal to change Baltimore City school board

Baltimore City isn’t alone in facing pension funding challenges

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Donald C. Fry has been the president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC), the central Maryland region's most prominent organization of business and civic leaders, since November 2002.

Under Don’s leadership, the GBC is recognized as a knowledgeable and highly credible business voice in the Baltimore region, Annapolis and Washington, D.C. on policy issues and competitive challenges facing Maryland. Its mission is to apply private-sector leadership to strengthening the business climate and quality of life in the region and state.

Fry served as GBC executive vice president from 1999 to 2002. From 1980 to 1999 Fry was engaged in a private law practice in Harford County. During this time he also served in the Maryland General Assembly. He is one of only a handful of legislators to have served on each of the major budget committees of the General Assembly.

Serving in the Senate of Maryland from 1997 to 1998, Fry was a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee. As a member of the House of Delegates from 1991 to 1997 Fry served on the Ways and Means Committee and on the Appropriations Committee.

Fry is a 1979 graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law. He earned a B.S. in political science from Frostburg State College.