Gov. Martin O'Malley delivered a typically polished performance Wednesday as he appeared before three General Assembly committees to testify for his plan -- but he appeared to be putting on a show to an audience that had already tuned out.
The governor laid out his case for his proposal to apply the state's 6 percent sales tax to gasoline -- arguing that the costs of inaction far outweighed the added cost motorists would pay at the pump. He went through a litany of transportation projects around the state that have been stalled by a lack of funds.
"We don't have to widen [U.S.] 301, but if we don't it has a cost," he told members of two House committees. "We don't have to rebuild the Dover Bridge (on the Eastern Shore), but if we do not we pay a cost for that too."
O'Malley hit all his key points, noting that the state has been ranked the worst in the country in traffic congestion. He pointed out that gas tax revenue has eroded since it was last raised in 1992 and that a $100 bridge can't be built for $10 million. He spoke of the thousands of jobs that would be created in the construction sector, building worthy projects.
"To create jobs, a modern economy requires modern investment," he said. "That is not a Democratic or Republican idea. That is an American truth."
O'Malley fielded few questions in the hurry-up session because he followed his House testimony by rushing to the Senate, where the Budget & Taxation Committee was squeezing a hearing between budget debates.
The governor faced his most pointed questioning from Del. Herbert H. McMillan, and Anne Arundel County Republican who pressed him on past occasions in which he and the General Assembly has transferred money out of the Transpprtation Trust Fund to balance the budget.
O'Malley acknowledged that had happened but insisted that money had been fully repaid -- except fro local highway revenues, whiuch he is proposing to parttially rstore out of the gas tax increase. When McMillan objected that the statutory protections against transfers in the governor's bill were too weak, O'Malley said he had no objections to a constitutional amendment.
"I'm totally open and flexible to whatever options you would think best safeguard these dollars," the governor said. "I'm not ideological, I'm pragmatic."
But lawmakers signaled that they're having a hard time seeing past the rising cost of gasoline, now approaching $4 a gallon.
Sen. James E. DeGrange, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who chairs the transportation budget subcommittee, said O'Malley "made a nice presentation." But he said any increase in the gas tax "has to be put off until later."
DeGrange said he didn't know when the time would be right to raise new revenue for transportation projects.
"I wish it would be tomorrow, but it's not," he said.