Wednesday, 03 April 2013 14:43

Gas tax increase passes Senate; cell phone law toughened

Cell phone use while driving a primary offense

by Bill Gates

    Gov. Martin O’Malley oftens talks about his concern and support for the “working families” of Maryland.
    After the State Senate voted 27-20 on Friday to approve an increase in the state gas tax, those working families may be paying up to 20 cents more per gallon for gas within four years.
    How does concern for working families mesh with pushing for an increase in the gasoline tax?

    “It doesn’t,” said Sen. Norman R. Stone (6th District), who voted against the tax increase. “This is one of the worse times to increase the gas tax.”
    Under the legislation, which is expected to be signed by O’Malley after passing the Senate and the House of Delegates, gas taxes will increase in a series of increments over the next four years.
    A roughly four-cent increase will go into effect on July 1.
    By 2016, unless the federal government allows states to tax Internet sales, about 20 cents will have been added to the current 23.5 cents-per-gallon gas tax.
    The tax increase is intended to replenish the state transportation fund.
    The fund is intended to pay for all transportation-related projects, from maintenance to new roadway projects, but has had money taken from it over the last several administrations to pay for non-transportation related items.
    Without the tax increase, the Maryland Department of Transportation has said it would soon be unable to pay for anything other than routine road maintenance.
    In a statement, O’Malley said the tax increase would support more than 57,000 jobs, ease traffic congestion and “build a 21st Century transportation network.”
    Del. John Olszewski Jr. (6th District), the chairman of the Baltimore County House delegation, believes the transportation fund needs could have been met without a tax increase.
    “Rather than heaping billions of dollars of taxes on working-class families, the legislature should have pursued other options,” said Olszewski, who voted against the tax increase along with fellow 6th District delegates Joseph “Sonny” Minnick and Michael Weir Jr.
    “Some possible alternatives include dedicated gaming revenues to transportation, requiring local support for the billions of dollars in transit projects projected to be financed by the tax, and/or creating provisions to mitigate the impacts of the regressive nature of the tax.”
    Olszewski said the tax increase disproportionately harms middle- and low-income families, “many of whom are literally living paycheck to paycheck.
    “It’s one of the most regressive taxes there is, and it is certainly damaging to working families. [The governor professing support for working families yet supporting a gas tax increase] just doesn’t match up.”
    When the gas tax reaches its full 20 cents, Olszewski said, it will take (along with other fee increases) nearly $750 million a year out of resident’s pockets.
    In order to “protect” the state transportation fund from being raided for other purposes, the Senate approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would require a three-fifths vote from each chamber to allow money to be taken from the transportation fund for non-transportation purposes.
    “[This is just] lip service paid to protecting the Transportation Trust Fund,” Olszewski said. “It merely requires some basic legislative maneuvering to allow future governors to raid the account.”
    Olszewski also pointed out the working class and poor will also see an increase in the cost of goods and services that rely upon gas to transport their products.
    The legislation also includes a provision that requires automatic and annual increases to the tax, and ties the existing sate excise gas tax to inflationary increases which will continue to grow with the rising cost of gasoline.
    “That means the taxes collected will continue to rise, with no requirement that members of the legislature take another vote to approve them,” Olszewski said.
Hang up and drive
    Seven years after his death, Del. John Arnick will finally have one of his goals come to fruition.
    A bill which would make talking on a cell phone while driving a primary offense has passed the House of Delegates and the Senate.
    Currently, it is illegal to use a cell phone while driving, but is only a secondary offense.
    That means a driver can be cited for the violation only if stopped for some other reason, such as speeding.
    Under the new bill, drivers talking on cell phones can be stopped and ticketed for that reason only.
    Hands-free devices are exempt from the law.
    “All these years later, John Arnick will finally see his push for cell phone laws reach a conclusion,” Olszewski said.
    During his career as a delegate, Arnick repeatedly introduced bills outlawing the use of a cell phone while driving, only to have them repeatedly defeated in committee.
    It wasn’t until after his death the legislation making it a secondary offense finally passed.
    “There’s no absence of statistics showing the connection between talking on a cell phone and traffic accidents,” Olszewski said.
    The bill passed the House by a vote of 106-29, with Olszewski, Minnick and Weir all voting in favor of the bill.
    A similar bill cross-filed in the Senate passed by a vote of 41-6, with Stone supporting the bill.
    Violation of the new law could bring fines of up to $500 and possible points on the offender’s driving record.
    “All along, I wanted it to be a primary offense,” Stone said.

Decision soon on gun control bill
    The House of Delegates should vote sometime this week on the gun control bill which has already passed the Senate.
    The House has made some amendments to the bill, such as increasing the license fee from $25 to $50 and adding a provision making it a crime to not report to the police if your gun is lost or stolen.
    Olszewski wants to eliminate registration fees from the bill.
    “If the intent is to get people to register their guns, we shouldn’t have barriers to registration,” he said.