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POLITICS

Gas tax increase has no chance, Maryland House speaker says

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Politics,Local,Maryland,Ben Giles

ANNAPOLIS - Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to raise Maryland's gasoline tax for the first time in two decades doesn't stand a chance of passing the General Assembly this year, House Speaker Michael Busch said Thursday.

Busch told reporters that the governor's bill to phase in a 6 percent sales tax on gasoline -- a move that eventually would add 18 cents per gallon to the current 23-cents-per-gallon tax -- is as good as dead this session.

The measure is simply too unpopular given how high gas prices have risen this year. Gasoline hit $4 in Maryland on Thursday, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.

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• The Senate approved a bill to create the framework for a public marketplace to provide health care to the uninsured, joining the House. It now goes to Gov. Martin O'Malley for his signature.
• The House approved raising the high school dropout age from 16 to 17 in 2015. The age would rise to 18 in 2017. The Senate has approved a similar bill, and differences must be worked out.
• The Senate approved a bill to ban chicken feed containing arsenic, bringing Maryland a step closer to being the first state to prohibit the additive. It goes back to the House for final authorization.
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"There's no appetite within the General Assembly to raise the gas tax," said Busch, D-Anne Arundel. "I think everybody understands that working, middle-class people depend on getting back forth, they see the rise in the gas prices, and that's one thing that I think there's tremendous amount of resistance from in both the House and Senate."

Busch doesn't envision calling a special session later in the year to deal with the gas tax, he said, an idea floated by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George's.

Miller has said he wants to have a debate on O'Malley's proposal this session. But he has refused to hold discussions on the bill until the House and Senate reach a budget compromise, and lawmakers remain far apart.

Both leaders expect a budget deal will be reached over the weekend, leaving Monday as the sole day to discuss the gas tax, as well as wrap up all the other legislative activity, by midnight.

Miller would be one of potentially few votes supporting the gas tax hike, he said.

"It doesn't poll well. It never will poll well. It's not about a popularity contest, it's trying to do what's right by the people of your state," Miller said.

"If it can be done fairly, we're going to consider it. I don't know if we'll have the votes. Not a single Republican will vote for it, and a good number of Democrats won't vote for it." The Senate has 35 Democrats and 12 Republicans.

O'Malley admits the gas tax faces a slim chance and instead has been suggesting raising the 6 percent sales tax another penny, dedicating the extra revenue to the state's Transportation Trust Fund.

"The governor remains open to different approaches to resolve this issue, but believes we need to get this done sooner rather than later to resolve our traffic congestion, rebuild our transportation infrastructure and create jobs for our people," said spokeswoman Takirra Winfield.

bgiles@washingtonexaminer.com

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