Myths fuel push to raise Maryland's gas tax

"If you repeat a fallacy often enough, it becomes accepted as fact." This time-tested tactic is being fully utilized in the drive to raise Maryland's gas tax.

Gas tax proponents claim, "We don't collect enough revenue to maintain our roads"; "investing more in public transportation will reduce traffic"; and "a constitutional amendment will protect funds generated by higher gas taxes." They even claim raising the gas tax would boost the economy and create "shovel ready jobs."

The facts tell a different story. Maryland collects adequate revenue to maintain its roads. Unfortunately, over the last three years, Gov. Martin O'Malley and legislators proposing gas tax increases shifted more than $1 billion in dedicated transportation revenues to other projects. In 2010, they permanently shifted $370 million in dedicated highway funds to cover General Fund deficits. A minimum 10 cent-per-gallon increase would be needed to replace these shifted transportation funds, but they want even more. A blue-ribbon commission is proposing a 15-cent-per-gallon increase (indexed to inflation), a 50 percent increase in car registration fees, and higher titling taxes. Their proposals would take Maryland from 27th to first in gas taxes. Marylanders, who've seen dedicated transportation funds spent for other purposes, are being asked to pay the same bill twice — and to throw in a tip, too.

The O'Malley administration has also shifted funds from roads to public transportation in an effort to reduce traffic. Since 2005, it has cut highway special fund spending by 20 percent and increased public transportation funding by 30 percent. But has this reduced traffic?

Only 8.6 percent of Marylanders use public transportation to get to work; 85 percent commute by car. The administration's 30 percent funding increase changed public transportation usage by one-tenth of 1 percent over 5 years. The notion that higher gas taxes will expand public transportation and reduce traffic simply doesn't fly.

Proponents of a gas tax hike, who routinely "shifted" transportation revenues, now hypocritically propose a constitutional amendment to protect funds they've plundered. The foxes want to design a new hen house. They don't tell you their constitutional amendment also automatically increases gas taxes without a vote — or that it has loopholes big enough to drive a truck through.

The most politically expedient claim proponents make is the one regarding the economy and jobs. Unfortunately, we can't spend our way out of a deficit or tax ourselves into prosperity. Government doesn't create revenue; the private sector does. When government takes private sector money to "create" jobs, it reduces the private sector's ability to create jobs and purchase goods.

Even if we ignore private-sector jobs lost due to higher taxes and accept Mr. O'Malley's' job creation claims, the juice isn't worth the squeeze. A 15-cent gas tax hike produces $498 million. For each million spent, the administration estimates 7.2 jobs are created, a total of 3,586 annually. Unfortunately, that's a drop in the bucket. Maryland has lost 49,000 construction jobs since 2007. And as General Assembly analysts note, "Few projects are shovel ready … the project development process is designed for extended and documented evolution … the bigger the project, the longer the timeline." It could be a year or more before any jobs are "shovel ready."

A gas tax increase couldn't come at a worse time. According to USA Today, 50 percent of Americans have lost a job or taken a pay cut since 2007. Inflation has increased by 10 percent, and gas prices are up 29 percent. Working families and small businesses are struggling to survive. They shouldn't have to bail out a state government that plundered dedicated transportation funds, even as it raised other income, sales and business taxes.

Maryland raises sufficient transportation revenue. Raising gas taxes shouldn't be a quid pro quo for spending dedicated transportation funds as promised; and raising taxes to "create" jobs is an absurdity. The last president to try it was Herbert Hoover.

Perhaps the greatest myth is, "It takes courage to raise taxes." Anyone can balance a budget by raising taxes. That's politics as usual in Maryland. What takes courage is prioritizing spending and living within your means. Maryland's families do it every day. They should demand the same from their government.

Del. Herb McMillan, an Annapolis Republican, represents District 30 in the House of Delegates. His email is herbmcmillan@verizon.net. Data used in this article were provided by the General Assembly's Department of Legislative Services.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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