AAA backs Question 1. But I don’t and here’s why

Thousands of AAA members across Maryland received an e-mail blast encouraging them to vote for Question 1. In it, the group’s VP for public and governmental affairs, Catherine Rossi, writes in part:

Over the last few years Maryland elected officials have “borrowed” over $1.5 billion dollars from your gas taxes, vehicle registration fees and other sources that were intended for local transportation improvements. Unfortunately, over $1 billion was never repaid and as a result, many local transportation projects have gone unfunded.

Year after year, many of our roads and bridges have been rated poor or in sub-standard condition, as Maryland motorists face some of the worst traffic congestion in the United States. While the State has a long list of state and local projects that would help improve safety and mobility and reduce congestion, these projects could all be derailed if Maryland fails to protect the Transportation Trust Fund, which is why it is so important that you vote FOR Question 1. (Emphasis in original.)

While it’s a compelling argument and outlines the principle of the problem, where I take issue with Question 1 is the substance.

But let’s begin by looking at the other source of the road funding problem. In 2012 it was noted that mass transit takes up 48% of the highway budget, compared to 23% for roads. Simply reversing that proportion would likely have alleviated the need for the additional gas tax passed in 2013 – a gas tax which may provide less income than expected because prices have retreated below $3 a gallon for the first time in a few years. Unfortunately, powerful political interests wanted to construct some useless light rail lines so it looks like we’re going to get them.

And those powerful political interests have enough allies in the General Assembly to make a “lockbox” comprised of a 3/5 majority all but worthless. In actual numerical terms, that’s 85 House members and 29 Senators and as long as the majority party exceeds those numbers there won’t be any sort of taxpayer protection in the TTF.

I know there’s an argument that says I shouldn’t let the perfect get in the way of the good, and just having a lockbox is a good step – basically echoing the AAA contention. But to me voting no sends a message that the proposal is not good enough. We should hold out for a “lockbox” of at least 2/3 – I’d prefer it to be 3/4, meaning that at least some GOP votes would be required. If we pass it this time, the issue will never be revisited, I guarantee it.

If I could trust the majority party any farther than I can throw it, that would be one thing. But I’ve seen the definition of some things they consider “emergency” legislation and there’s potential for abuse here.

If you’re messing with the Maryland Constitution, you should at least do it right. Vote NO on Question 1.

And now a programming note. Instead of burying my forum coverage on a weekend, I’m going to look back at that Monday through Wednesday – just in time for early voting. Tomorrow I have a music review slated and Sunday I’ll detail a special event I attended Thursday night.

Two Marylanders discuss state economy

Two critics had differing takes on the state economy this week. One of them is running for governor while the other continues to expand its grassroots effort as some question whether its leader will throw his hat into that ring.

The latter critic, Larry Hogan of Change Maryland, noted with disbelief that Maryland lost 5,700 jobs in May:

Every month in Maryland is like Groundhog’s Day – over and over again we hear this administration talk about jobs, yet more times than not, Maryland families wake up to learn once again our state has lost jobs. Career politicians think that if they say something enough times, it will eventually become true. And while the O’Malley / Brown administration likes to talk about jobs, the cold harsh reality is that 5,700 hard working Marylanders lost their job last month.

The time for results is long overdue and the O’Malley / Brown administration has no more excuses left. They have been at the helm of our state’s economy for seven years, there is no one else to blame for these job losses. The need for real change in Maryland has never been more clear.

While O’Malley / Brown claimed 4,600 jobs were created in Maryland during May in the aftermath of the “Bush Recession” – never mind the six years of prosperity which occurred before O’Malley’s party became Congressional obstructionists – Change Maryland actually links to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data which shows the number of unemployed rose from 205,100 to 210,800 in May, a number which increased unemployment by 0.2 percent.

Perhaps that’s why Change Maryland has become a social media juggernaut, eclipsing by far the social media presence of Maryland’s current statewide candidates and their affiliated parties.

Meanwhile, announced gubernatorial hopeful Ron George blasted O’Malley / Brown for Maryland’s poor grade in a national report on manufacturing climate, a grade which has remained subpar throughout O’Malley’s tenure. Said Delegate George:

This is why manufacturing jobs are a big part of (my) “Economic Development And Maryland Jobs Plan”. I see Baltimore and small towns on the Eastern Shore, Western and Southern Maryland hurting because the democratic leadership does not understand how to create jobs and true economic growth. I will bring manufacturing jobs back to Maryland.

While his general outline is fairly sketchy, I believe we should strive to create more manufacturing jobs. Yet there is one aspect of a business climate generally overlooked.

On Monday travelers will be forced to shoulder a greater burden of the cost of transportation as increased tolls on Maryland bridges (including the Bay Bridge) and highways take effect on the very same day the gasoline tax is increased. Ostensibly these increases are to fund maintenance on what we already have as well as supposedly provide the seed money to build new commuter rail lines in Baltimore and in the Washington suburbs. Perhaps that would be fantastic for the 1 out of 12 Maryland workers which actually use mass transit and may jump that number all the way to 1 in 10 or maybe the stratospheric heights of 1 in 9. But that leaves the rest of us.

Building commuter rail probably won’t clear enough cars off the highways to appreciably improve the ability for trucks to traverse Maryland’s roadways. Aside from State Senator E.J. Pipkin – who has several times introduced legislation to this effect – no one is seriously thinking about the real infrastructure improvement of a midpoint crossing of Chesapeake Bay, one which would make Eastern Shore goods more accessible to Virginia and points west and encourage tourism from an area now mired with the prospect of hours of travel for going a comparatively short distance as the crow flies.

Nor are they considering upgrading the U.S. 13 corridor through Delmarva to provide an alternate north-south route from Wilmington and points north to Norfolk and regions south. Another options benefiting the state would be to finish the abandoned I-97 route to Richmond. Either of these would require regional cooperation, but neither seem to be a priority for a governor who would rather move a few people between menial jobs than move lots of goods and tourists around the region in a timely manner.

We have the willing and reasonably skilled labor force ready to work. Now we need a government which thinks long-term about real possibilities, not pie-in-the-sky schemes and imaginary boogeymen like global warming.

Gas tax study: jobs could be lost

Late last month the Americans for Prosperity Foundation – Maryland, along with the Sage Policy Group, released a study claiming that possibly over 1,000 jobs could be lost in Maryland if the gasoline tax is increased via either the adoption of a 3% or 6% sales tax on the product – in other words, expanding an already-existing tax to cover a product previously exempt from that avenue of taxation – or simply adding a dime per gallon to the current state tax burden of 23.5 cents per gallon.

Before I begin my take on this, though, it’s helpful to know the players. We all know AFP tends to be a group which favors low taxation and limited government; they have graced this website many times before with their message. I had never heard of the Sage Policy Group prior to this study, though, so I looked them up. It seems like a small, one-horse operation but their clientele is varied and they appear relatively apolitical. I would have to say, though, this isn’t the most in-depth study I’ve ever read – to me it’s almost like a paint-by-numbers job based on the description of the software used. (Then again, the experience to interpret the numbers has some value.)

The obvious weakness of the study, plainly stated within, is that it’s not an attempt at a cost-benefit analysis. Obviously the state would be able to derive some benefit to having a Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) stocked with more cash to do the needed repairs and construction on state transportation infrastructure, but the question on the mind of most is whether they trust a greedy governor and compliant legislators to keep their hands out of the till. We probably wouldn’t be having this discussion if our last two governors hadn’t “borrowed” over $1 billion from the TTF “pot of gold” to keep the budget in balance, rather than bearing the blame for unpopular spending cuts or more new taxes; not that the latter stopped Martin O’Malley.

Yet it’s all but inevitable the tax will be increased; after all, the Democrats have the votes and the respective ribbon-cuttings on projects would likely be timed in the few months before they face voters. Surely, they will argue, a dime or two a gallon – most of these schemes would work out to ten to twenty cents a gallon, depending on gasoline price – is a small price to pay for fixing Maryland’s roads and bringing O’Malley’s dream of expanded light rail to fruition. And perhaps it would be, if the former assumption on usage was true.

But a study by the Department of Legislative Services shows that spending on transit takes up almost half of TTF funding, up from about 1/3 twenty years ago; meanwhile, the highway construction share has declined by about the same amount, to less than a quarter per dollar spent. The drop has been most precipitous during Martin O’Malley’s tenure. Given those facts and O’Malley’s stated wish list of new mass transit projects, it’s likely that the best we can hope for would be to get back to pre-O’Malley levels of spending on highway needs if the gas tax were increased.

The Sage Policy study, though, also estimates the number of jobs lost due to the tax hike. Obviously, though, there would be some jobs gained as a number of construction projects are funded. Someone has to pave the roads, design the bridges, and provide the materials necessary for working on infrastructure. While the Sage study couches in some fashion the job losses based on a theory that money taken out of the private-sector economy results in job losses, there are legitimate needs the public sector pays for and roads are among them – hopefully to provide a net gain.

Simply put, if you figure the $4 a week lost by an average family due to this tax is computed as one latte, sure, if everyone stops buying as many lattes it will eventually result in the coffee shop laying off workers or even closing, but the construction business next door may be able to hire laborers with a higher skill level and wage thanks to the new highway projects being built. It’s a tradeoff, and we all know that a robust highway network facilitates the efficient movement of people and goods. On the other hand, light rail projects don’t contribute in the same way and generally require subsidies from the state to remain in operation. Fewer jobs are created with that spending – yet that’s my suspicion as to the real purpose of this proposed gas tax hike.

I believe Marylanders would be less reluctant to pay a gas tax increase which amounts to something no worse than an average “sticker shock” gas price jump where the cost goes up 20 cents a gallon overnight if they had confidence the money would be spent wisely and not just tossed into the void of the state’s General Fund or spent on mass transit boondoggles. Yet if we returned mass transit to its traditional level of spending we might be able to get back to fixing roads without the need to increase the gasoline tax. That seems like the logical step here before we vacuum more money from the pockets of those Marylanders who still are among the working.

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    Addie Eckardt (R)
    Chris Robinson (D)

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    Johnny Mautz (R)
    Rodney Benjamin (D)
    Keasha Haythe (D)

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    Mike McDermott (R)

    Jim Mathias (D)

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    Norm Conway (D)

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