The House of Delegates turned back a series of amendments Wednesday night seeking to derail a transportation revenue bill backed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a strong indication that Democratic leaders have enough votes to raise the state's gas tax for the first time in more than two decades.
After defeating 11 proposed amendments, the House gave the bill its preliminary approval, setting up a final vote before the end of the week. If it passes, it would go to the Senate.
The plan would raise gas taxes by about $600 million a year when fully implemented in 2017. It is the result of painstaking behind-the-scenes negotiations among O'Malley, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch over a way to raise revenue for the state's roads, bridges, transit and other transportation needs. The talks produced an agreement early this month, more than halfway into the 90-day legislative session.
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Republicans came out swinging at one of the most controversial aspects of the package — a provision tying future increases in the state's 23.5-cents-a-gallon gas tax to inflation.
Del. Herbert McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican, offered an amendment stripping the automatic inflation increases from the bill. He contended that lawmakers should "make the tough votes" before taxes go up.
"This bill puts the gas tax on autopilot, and it locks us out of the cockpit," said McMillan, a pilot.
But House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat, countered that other taxes, such as the sales tax, routinely bring in more revenue as prices increase.
"The vast majority of the tax base of this state and others is tied to things that go up with inflation," he said.
The amendment was defeated 84-50, indicating that Busch has lined up the votes it will take to pass the bill. Another proposed change by House Minority Whip Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio to cap annual inflation increases at 1 percent failed on an 81-50 vote.
The plan would increase taxes on gas by 3.8 cents a gallon July 1 and add increments in subsequent years. By 2016, motorists could be paying about 39.5 cents a gallon — 16 cents higher than now.
At a news conference before the debate, House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell took aim at the late introduction of the measure, suggesting that the governor was distracted by out-of-state travels.
"The governor waited until the 55th day of the session to submit a very complicated bill," he said.
Republicans lawmakers excoriated the plan as a $2 billion drain on taxpayers' wallets over the next six years.
"It's not a tax increase for transportation, it's a punishment, in my opinion," said O'Donnell, a Calvert County Republican.
As amended by a House committee, the bill raises taxes on gas in two ways — by phasing in a sales tax on gasoline and tying future increases in the current cents-per-gallon gas excise tax to the Consumer Price Index.
Republican delegates criticized the bill's "lockbox" provisions designed to deter future diversions of money from the Transportation Trust Fund as being too weak. The bill would require three-fifths approval in the relevant committees to approve such a transfer in the case of an economic emergency.
"This isn't a lockbox. It's a wet paper bag. A hamster could bust out of this thing," McMillan said.
But delegates voted 78-56 to reject an amendment by Del. Susan Krebs, a Carroll County Republican, that would have made passage of the bill contingent on Assembly approval of a constitutional amendment protecting the trust fund.