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Lawmakers Move Ahead To Protect Trust Fund

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — While Gov. Martin O’Malley’s plan to protect transportation dollars from being used to fill state budget gaps remains unclear, lawmakers are moving forward with attempts to block access to the state’s languishing Transportation Trust Fund.

Legislators in both the state Senate and House of Delegates have introduced bills to create a constitutional amendment that would prevent transferring money out of the fund, which has been used to stem financial shortfalls in recent years.

Sens. David Brinkley and Robert Garagiola, as well as a group of delegates, have submitted proposals to lock the fund with an amendment. The amendment would require approval by three-fifths of legislators and ratification by Maryland voters.

While members of both parties have endorsed the idea, Garagiola said the proposal could be a tough sell.

“Certainly there are more hurdles with a constitutional amendment,” he said. “You need a super-majority. There are hurdles with that because people want flexibility. I really believe it really should be sacrosanct. We call it a Transportation Trust Fund for a reason.”

A similar proposal from Garagiola, coupled with a gas tax hike, died last year as lawmakers awaited recommendations from a state commission created to advise them on meeting transportation needs.

Maryland is facing a backlog in transportation projects, and it would cost about $12 billion to fund only the top-priority project in each county and the city of Baltimore.

In October, the commission recommended raising more than $800 million in new transportation revenue annually. It proposed raising the state’s 23.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax by 15 cents over three years — 5 cents each year.

During his annual State of the State address Wednesday, O’Malley, a Democrat, pitched levying a 6 percent sales tax on gasoline. He said the money raised from the tax, which would be directed to transportation improvements, need to be protected. However, he did not say how he will go about that.

His proposal, which would be phased in over three years, would generate an estimated $204 million in the first year, with a two percent sales tax, according to the commission’s report. That would rise to $409 million annually with a 4 percent sales tax and $613 million with a 6 percent sales tax.

O’Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said Wednesday that details on how the governor will recommend protecting transportation dollars are still unclear.

A constitutional amendment would not necessarily benefit the governor, said Brinkley, R-Frederick.

“He doesn’t care (about a constitutional amendment),” Brinkley said. “No. A governor, the executive, would never like that idea. Whether they are a Democrat or a Republican, they don’t want their hands tied. I understand that sentiment, but at this point, there’s been too many abuses.”

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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