ANNAPOLIS —The Maryland House of Delegates voted Friday to raise taxes on gasoline sales for the first time in more than two decades.
The Housed voted 76-63 to levy a sales tax on gasoline that would amount to about 4 cents a gallon starting this July, another 8 cents by July 2015 and possibly as much as 8 additional cents by July 2016. The increases together would nearly double current taxes on gasoline, unless Congress passes an Internet sales tax measure that would provide another revenue source for transportation.
The vote sends the proposal, which has the support of Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley and is one of the biggest and most politically sensitive issues of the current legislative session, to the state Senate.
The measure would impose a sales tax on gasoline sales for the first time beginning in July, with gradual increases to follow. It also includes a mechanism to automatically raise the tax based on inflation by linking it to changes in the Consumer Price Index.
Supporters noted that Maryland has not raised its 23.5-cents-per-gallon excise tax since 1992. Delegate Kumar Barve, a Democrat from traffic-choked Montgomery County, said that by 2016, that tax would have about 20 percent of the buying power it did when he voted for it more than 20 years ago.
“That is a substantial problem that we have to face and fix, because if we don’t, we will continue to have worse and worse transportation systems,” Barve said.
But Republican critics howled at the idea of creating an automatic mechanism to raise taxes in perpetuity. Delegate Herb McMillan, R-Anne Arundel, described it as “an unholy marriage” of a new sales tax on gasoline and an automatic gas tax increase.
“What that does is to create a Frankenstein monster — a zombie that automatically and mindlessly lumbers through our state’s economy — always growing, always hungry, mindlessly devouring the budgets of working families,” McMillan said.
Supporters, however, said transportation projects made possible by the money will create 44,000 construction jobs over the next five years. They also noted a major transportation revenue measure approved in Virginia this year.
They also say Maryland, which is struggling with heavily congested roads in the suburbs of the nation’s capital, needs the new revenue to stay competitive in attracting business.
Delegate Jolene Ivey, D-Prince George’s, noted that Maryland and Virginia are both vying to attract a new FBI headquarters that would bring thousands of jobs.
“We won’t compete successfully in any event against Virginia unless we pass this bill,” Ivey said.
At its current pace, the state is scheduled to run out of money for new transportation projects after 2017.
Opponents, including some Democrats, said the tax was too regressive and would hurt the poor.
Delegate Luiz Simmons, a liberal Democrat from Montgomery County, pointed out that he has voted for plenty of taxes before, but he wouldn’t vote for this one because it is “an egregiously regressive tax.”
“I’m certainly no stranger — as many of you are — to voting for higher taxes, but I don’t think that it should be portrayed as an act of political courage when we in fact stick it to the most vulnerable citizens in the state with a vengeance,” Simmons said.
Democratic supporters underscored the need to shore up the state’s transportation revenues in order to safeguard against a bridge collapse, such as the one in Minnesota in 2007 that killed 13 people and injured 145.
“So at the end of the day, as we talk about cost and we just focus strictly on dollars and cents, let’s not forget the loss of life, that there are peoples’ lives here and some things are worth paying for,” said Delegate Dereck Davis, D-Prince George’s. “Safety is worth paying for.”
But Republicans said much of the money would be used to pay for mass transit proposals such as the Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.