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Top Democrats seek votes to raise gas taxes

With three weeks left in the General Assembly session, Gov. Martin O'Malley and legislative leaders have begun the painstaking process of rounding up the votes to raise taxes on gasoline — a move so unpopular it hasn't been done here since 1992.

The measure is what lawmakers call a "heavy lift," a vote that could come back to haunt them at the polls. O'Malley has been talking to senators and delegates one on one and in groups, trying to nail down support for a proposal that would add an estimated 9 cents to the price of a gallon of gas by 2014.

"He's been working this bill," said Sen. Rob Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat and a leading proponent of increased transportation spending. "I still feel confident we'll get a transportation revenue bill this year."

The governor, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch have joined to support a plan to raise nearly $600 million a year in taxes and transit fares by 2018. As they showed in last year's casino expansion fight, when the three Democratic leaders agree on a course of action, they're difficult to stop.

But right now, they're trying to put a coalition together piece by piece. As they do, many legislators will need to be wooed.

In Baltimore, for instance, transportation is a critical issue and the gas tax package has the enthusiastic support of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. But for Baltimore's senators and delegates, the No. 1 priority is to get a state funding plan to enable a comprehensive rebuilding of the city's crumbling schools.

While some city lawmakers insist that there's no direct link between the two issues, others say privately that they are prepared to use the state leaders' desire for their vote on the gas tax to see that funding is approved as well for Baltimore school construction.

Legislators, the O'Malley administration and key staff members are working with city officials to overhaul the original plan brought in by Rawlings-Blake and city schools chief Andrés Alonso in the hope that they can coalesce around a plan more palatable to Miller and other critics.

Sen. Nathanael J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, hinted at the linkage between the transportation and schools issues. Progress on school construction financing, he said, "really helps the situation with regard to transportation funding."

Miller and Busch have said lawmakers from Prince George's want money to build a state-of-the-art hospital to replace an aging county facility. Del. Jolene Ivey, the county's House delegation chair, said the state money is in the proposed capital budget and the lawmakers want to ensure that it stays there.

On Friday morning, O'Malley met with Prince George's 23-member House delegation to push for added transportation revenue before stopping off at a news conference of business and labor leaders who support his plan.

Pressure on Maryland to raise transportation revenue has grown since Virginia — with a Republican governor and GOP-controlled legislature — enacted an $880 million-a-year transportation revenue package late last month. The states' Washington suburbs frequently compete to attract businesses, and the state with less money to address traffic congestion could be at a disadvantage.

Maryland officials have projected that by 2017, without added transportation revenue, there will be no money for new road construction or mass transit projects as every available dollar would go toward current operations and basic maintenance.

The projects hanging in the balance include two large light-rail projects estimated to cost a combined $5 billion: the Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs. The Maryland Department of Transportation has said that without additional revenue, there will be no money to continue planning and engineering for the projects.

The multi-step plan to raise money for such projects would start by cutting the current 23.5-cents-a-gallon gas tax by 5 cents. But the cut would be more than offset by applying a sales tax to gasoline, which is now exempt. The result is that the measure would add about 2 cents to the price of a gallon of gas July 1 and another 7 cents in 2014, with a further 7-cent increase possible the year after that. Because the gas tax would be tied to inflation, it would rise in future years.

Gasoline prices are down nearly 20 cents from this time last year, when O'Malley's previous plan failed. But this year's proposal could still be a hard sell because the price of gas has risen about 35 cents a gallon, to roughly $3.67, since the beginning of the year.

Nevertheless, Miller and Busch have expressed confidence that they will be able to steer the legislation through their chambers.

"The urgency became much clearer when Virginia passed a transportation package," Busch said. He noted that Prince George's County is in competition with that state to be the site of a new FBI headquarters, which would require costly upgrades to the road system.

"You're talking about 20,000 permanent jobs in the FBI facility and the surrounding mixed-use buildings and housing," Busch said.

Even among groups that concede the need for new transportation funding, there is opposition to the plan settled on by O'Malley and the Assembly leaders.

"We know that Maryland desperately needs more transportation funding, but we would have to see balance and fairness," said Lon Anderson, government affairs director for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "The governor's plan goes after motorists in a big way."

The proposal is also getting pushback from lawmakers in rural counties. At a hearing Friday at which three county executives testified in favor of the plan, Del. Kathy Afzali, a Frederick County Republican, noted that there were no elected officials present from Maryland's rural areas.

"That sends a message to me that this is an urban agenda," she said.

The numbers needed to pass a bill are 24 votes in the state Senate and 71 in the House of Delegates.

It is unlikely that any of those votes will come from Republicans. In states such as Virginia, where they hold majorities, GOP legislators have provided votes to raise taxes for transportation. In Maryland, as recently as 2004, with a Republican governor asking for their help, the state's GOP lawmakers supported a transportation revenue package based largely on an increase in the motor vehicle registration fee.

This year, as a heavily outnumbered minority, Republicans have little incentive to get behind a proposal that is politically toxic in their conservative districts. Not even the prospect of a ribbon-cutting in his or her district is likely to entice a Republican lawmaker to risk a primary challenge.

That leaves a pool of 98 Democratic delegates and 35 senators in which the governor and legislative leaders can fish for votes.

The governor, the speaker and the Senate president will likely try to assemble just enough votes to pass the bill while letting their more conservative Democratic members off the hook.

In the House, the base of a coalition in favor of the gas tax plan probably would have to come from the all-Democratic delegations from Baltimore and from Montgomery and Prince George's counties. They are the jurisdictions with the greatest transit needs and traffic congestion, and where lawmakers would face the least political risk from casting a "yes" vote.

Those jurisdictions would provide 65 of the needed 71 votes if the speaker's vaunted whip system could keep all of those members in line. The leaders will look for the rest of the votes in such places as eastern Howard County, western Baltimore County, the city of Frederick and increasingly Democratic Charles County, where rapid growth has led to traffic congestion.

The math is similar in the Senate, except that Miller might need to muster 29 votes to break a filibuster — something he always seems able to do.

Proposed rise in gas taxes

•Estimated 2 cent increase to price of a gallon of gas July 1

•Another 7 cents in 2014

•Another 7 cents possible in 2015

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