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January 25, 2012

Gas Pains and Rough Roads

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s fiscal year 2013 state budget, released a week ago, is a full menu of difficult choices. However, one of the most troubling is the lack of funding for police protection and highway user revenue for municipalities.


In the grand scheme of things, there is little we can do to stop our nation from lurching forward into the fifth consecutive year of economic turmoil; or stop the conflicts and casualties from continuing in the Middle East. It is even more difficult for us to solve the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, or stop the Republican presidential candidates from immolating each other and vaporizing the country along the way.


Yet, as writer Patricia A. Kelly wrote so well last Wednesday, “Here, you can get to know the mayor, other local elected officials, and radio personalities. You can just walk up and say what’s on your mind, and actually be heard. You can have an impact.”


Well, now is the time to be in touch with your local representative and let your thoughts be heard.


According to the Maryland Municipal League website, the governor’s “budget flat funds State Aid for Police Protection grants thereby continuing for the fourth straight year 35% reductions to local governments…


“Highway User Revenues aid to municipalities dropped from $9.9 million for this current fiscal year to $6.5 million for Fiscal Year 2013, a decrease of 34% and an 86% decrease from historic highs just five years ago.”


Reinstatement of funding for police aid and highway user revenues is the focus of the League’s legislative advocacy with this winter’s 430th session of the General Assembly.


“To find out how you can join Maryland's municipal officials in making sure our governor and state legislators know how important it is to return Highway User Revenue to our cities and towns,” watch the League’s excellent 60-second public service announcement on “Restoring Highway User Revenue,” on YouTube.


Drawing from my experience as the mayor of Westminster (2001-2005) and as a statewide elected member of the League’s board of directors from 2000 to 2005, the current budget cuts to our local governments have had a profound debilitating affect of our day-to-day quality of life in Maryland and the matter simply must be addressed.


My experience on the League’s legislative committee for several terms and an officer of the League’s Carroll County Chapter (1999-2005) gives me insight and a great deal of respect for how difficult it is to negotiate all that goes into protecting Maryland’s families from the unintended consequences of ill-considered taxes.


It is very difficult to juggle public policy, statewide politics, and the byzantine intrigues of the General Assembly when the rubber meets the road and impacts us here on Main Street, especially in the dreadful condition of our current economy where families are hurting.


Many continue to feel Maryland’s structural state budget deficit which is not so much a revenue challenge as it is a problem with the spending priorities of the current administration and the leadership of the General Assembly.


I bristle at the clever industrious concealment by calling tax hikes an ‘investment.’ However, if there were ever a case for the state government to ‘invest’ in our quality of life, it is making certain that the resources for maintaining and upgrading our city roads and streets are available.


Although I have strongly opposed increases in the gas tax in the past, perhaps this is the year to take a good look at some sort of guarantee that a proper portion of the revenues from the gas tax is specifically dedicated to funding the highway user revenues for counties and municipalities.


Past proposals have unfortunately been contextually flawed and lacked the necessary supporting information to be compelling and persuasive in stark contrast with Governor O’Malley’s reputation for doing his homework well.


One idea brought to our attention by Gazette staff writer Steve Kelly in a November 18, 2011 article, is worthy of consideration. He wrote:


“Transportation advocates and some business leaders have said they could support a gas tax increase to bolster the state’s depleted Transportation Trust Fund, but with the provision that a firewall be erected so the money only could be used for needed transportation infrastructure projects…


“It also recommended the legislature pass a constitutional amendment to ensure money slated for transportation uses not be transferred to other uses...”


Here’s the thing. If the benefit of properly funding the upkeep and maintenance of our streets and highways is not shared by the entire state, for our greater common benefit, then the burden is going to be disproportionately shifted to each and every one of us in the form of increased property taxes or income taxes.


Not to be overlooked is the deleterious impact the rough roads and congested highways have on our businesses, economy, and way of life. Take the idea to the bank that extended commutes to work and the delayed delivery of goods and services on poorly maintained streets and highways that are currently a greater hidden tax on you and me than the proposed gas tax.


Yes, there is a difference between a user fee, which is technically the classification of a gas tax, and general tax revenues. With ironclad controls on the use of the gas tax revenues in place, we can avoid the challenges of a general tax, of which we seem to have little control over in the state of Maryland.


According to Matt Markovitz’s article in the Aberdeen Patch on Monday, “In fiscal year 2008, the last time highway user revenues were fully funded; municipalities shared $45 million, according to the Cumberland Times-News.” Remember, this year Governor O’Malley’s budget only includes $6.5 million. The balance of $38.5 million is going to have to come from somewhere – somehow. It just might be best for it to come from user taxes of which we have some control.


. . . . .I’m just saying…


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