Maryland leaders look to protect transportation money

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Local,Maryland,Transportation,Brian Hughes

O'Malley routinely diverts money reserved for transportation projects

Maryland lawmakers are moving to create a lockbox to prevent officials from raiding a depleted transportation fund that has left the state's network of roads badly in need of repair.

But the move to essentially keep state leaders from taking shortcuts to balance the budget showcases just how routine the practice has become under Gov. Martin O'Malley, who campaigned in his first run for office on a vow to protect the dollars from being used for other purposes.

Though the majority of the money taken from the transportation fund has been paid back, O'Malley once decried the practice altogether, saying it would decimate state transportation initiatives.

Here's an example of campaign literature O'Malley used when running against former Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich for the governor's mansion as the mayor of Baltimore: "Martin O'Malley will end the raiding of Maryland's transportation trust fund, ensuring that money meant for transportation will be used on our highest transportation priorities, instead of being diverted away. O'Malley will also ensure localities have the ability to make their own smart transportation investments."

Between 2003 and 2011, however, nearly $1 billion was taken from the transportation trust to tackle general-fund budget woes -- two-thirds of it since 2007, when O'Malley assumed office.

The governor recently proposed a 6 percent sales tax on gasoline for transportation projects, saying the higher levy is necessary to make up for the empty coffers designated for transportation funding. But critics say they need more assurances the money will go solely to transportation efforts and argue that families and businesses can't afford the higher taxes amid stubbornly high unemployment.

The state's 23.5 cents per gallon tax hasn't been raised in decades and remains among the lowest rates in the nation. Gasoline currently is not subject to the sales tax.

O'Malley was not the first chief executive to turn to designated transportation dollars to plug budget gaps. In 2003 and 2004, under Ehrlich, $315 million was transferred from the transportation fund to close shortfalls.

In coming weeks, the bill to protect transportation funding is expected to make its way through the General Assembly and has a strong chance of passing, according to analysts.

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