Christopher Summers: Put the brakes on gas tax special session

Originally Published in the Daily Record

With talk of a special legislative session to increase Maryland’s gas tax, one could be forgiven for having an unwelcome sense of déjà vu. If the rationale from special session advocates sounds eerily familiar I suggest you Google the phrase, “The state is going to be very well positioned for the next few years.”

That’s a quote from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. in The Baltimore Sun after lawmakers used a special session in 2007 to pass the largest tax increase in Maryland history, ostensibly to plug the state’s ongoing budget deficit. With Marylanders paying higher taxes, the argument went; Maryland’s fiscal footing was finally secure.

History has proven advocates for that special session woefully wrong — Maryland has run billion-dollar deficits every year since — and last week’s calls from Miller and others for a gas tax special session will prove equally shortsighted. In both instances, advocates place greater priority on getting more tax revenue rather than fixing the mismanagement of tax revenue they already collect.

Taxes, fees aren’t the answer

Consider these arguments for putting the brakes on a gas tax special session:

-The supposed scarcity of transportation revenue has not stopped Maryland lawmakers from taking $1.1 billion from the transportation trust fund in prior years to plug holes elsewhere in the state budget. This portion of the trust fund — known as highway user funds — has paralyzed local governments’ ability to upgrade and maintain safety on our roads.

Unlike the rest of the transportation trust fund, the O’Malley administration has no obligation to pay this money back and has offered no plan to do so. Commuters should take heed of Comptroller Peter Franchot’s remarks in February, “If we move forward in this direction with this gas tax increase, it’s going to be for general fund relief, not traffic congestion relief.”

-Maryland commuters have been hit with scores of transportation taxes and fees the last five years with little to show for it. The O’Malley administration has raised the vehicle excise tax by 20 percent, raised the car-titling fee by 100 percent, raised Baltimore-area tolls by as much as 50 percent, hiked the Chesapeake Bay Bridge toll by 60 percent and increased car insurance premiums for an estimated 200,000 Marylanders.

That’s to say nothing of electric bill increases, sales tax increases, flush tax increases and increases in the personal income tax.

Despite all these new taxes and fees, the Baltimore region ranks the sixth-worst in America for urban congestion, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. The Washington, D.C., region, including the Maryland suburbs, ranks dead last. Thus, the contention that the solution to our challenges is a little more money rings hollow today — just as it did in 2007.

-In the last five years, Maryland transportation spending has veered in the opposite direction of real-world commuter patterns. A study from my colleagues at the Maryland Public Policy Institute shows that roughly half the state’s transit and highway funds over the past five years have gone to transit projects, yet less than 10 percent of Marylanders actually use transit for their commute.

-Finally, need I mention the current state of gas prices? At $4 per gallon, commuters are paying twice as much at the pump today as they were four years ago and have no relief in sight. Asking them to pay as much as 25 percent more in gas taxes — as Gov. O’Malley suggested in March — in part to pay for a transit system few of them use is bad policy and bad politics.

The growing drumbeat

We can fund transportation projects without tax increases.

Lawmakers can start by repaying local highway dollars so that local governments have more than $1 billion with which to improve and maintain roads. They can follow the Virginia model for public-private partnerships to attract private dollars to invest in infrastructure.

Last, they can order a truly independent performance audit to ensure that government is providing the highest possible return for taxes currently paid by the citizens of Maryland.

Here’s a prediction: The drumbeat for a gas tax special session will get louder in coming weeks. When it does, our legislators should remember that the grandiose predictions of 2007 proved spectacularly wrong. Passing yet another tax increase is no way to make amends.