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MIller: High Gas Prices Make Gas Tax A Tough Sell

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller sounded doubtful Tuesday about the prospects for a gas tax increase, especially because of high gas prices and the fact that Maryland lawmakers will be wrestling with a proposed income tax increase to balance the budget.

Miller, who supports finding new revenue for transportation, said he would prefer to wait until gas prices drop. Perhaps by fall, prices will have dropped enough to take up a transportation revenue package in a special session, he said, assuming they don’t slide down enough by the end of the session April 9.

For now, though, the Senate president said lawmakers need to focus on the income tax increase to help cut an ongoing budget deficit in half.

“Maybe after we get through that, then their appetite for other fee and revenue increases will have expired,” Miller, D-Calvert, told reporters.

The Senate president has delayed action on the gas tax proposal and other O’Malley revenue initiatives until lawmakers work out challenging budget legislation. Those proposals include an increase in the state’s “flush tax,” which is now a $30 annual charge on sewer bills to upgrade wastewater treatment facilities, and O’Malley’s offshore wind energy measure.

O’Malley, a Democrat, is scheduled to testify in support of his gas tax proposal Wednesday. The measure would apply the sales tax to gasoline by phasing it in by 2 percent a year up to 6 percent.

That would raise about $613 million annually when fully implemented. Maryland’s 23.5-cents per gallon gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1992.

Miller has repeatedly expressed concern that budget negotiations will be unusually difficult this year. He is focusing on moving legislation to the House of Delegates this week so negotiations can begin.

“We haven’t even started, and we’re not on the same page with the House right now — not on the same page with the governor, quite frankly,” Miller told senators during session. “So, you know, it’s going to be a tumultuous time, I believe, but we’re going to do our responsibility and that’s try to get something over to the House and hopefully it will be this week.”

Miller said that if the gas tax fails this year, then transportation revenues will need to be considered eventually, because congestion is affecting the state’s quality of life and economic development.

“We’re one of the wealthiest states in the union and we can certainly afford a gas tax — if it is feasible. Right now, it does not appear to be feasible, but at some point in time in the near future it’s going to have to be feasible so we can move our state forward.”

Delegate Anthony O’Donnell, a Calvert County Republican who opposes the gas tax plan, said he’s skeptical about talk of a gas tax demise. O’Donnell, the House minority leader, noted that an alcohol tax increase passed last year on the last day of the session, after many assumed that it didn’t have enough support.

“Look, there’s taxaholics around here, and they’re looking in the cupboards to get a new tax shot, so we’ll see what happens,” O’Donnell said after House Republicans presented an alternative budget plan. “When we adjourn Sine Die, we’ll be safe.”

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

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