WASHINGTON — Several Maryland legislators are pushing for a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to obtain voter approval of transportation projects and their proposed funding, after the lawmakers failed to raise gasoline taxes earlier this year.
The proposed amendment, titled “End the Gridlock” by its sponsors, didn’t come up in the special August session of the General Assembly called by Gov. Martin O’Malley.
However, co-sponsor Del. Sam Arora, D-Montgomery County, said it will be reintroduced in January when lawmakers begin a new session.
The amendment would have to be approved by two-thirds of each chamber in the General Assembly and then by a majority of voters.
Maryland’s General Assembly does not currently have the power to create a referendum for a transportation project, but this model exists in 18 states, according to the amendment’s co-authors, Sen. Jim Rosapepe, D-Prince George’s County, and Del. Brian Feldman, D-Montgomery County.
This approach would give the legislature the option of avoiding the question of whether or not to approve funding for a project and would instead put the decision before the voters.
Currently, the General Assembly approves a budget containing a transportation project and the Department of Transportation issues bonds for it.
Treasurer Nancy Kopp, who oversees the issuance of state debt, didn’t get a chance to weigh in on the proposal during its development, said Amber Teitt, director of debt management in the treasurer’s office.
However, Teitt noted the amendment would not prevent the government from continuing to issue debt in the traditional way.
“This would just be another avenue,” she said.
The proposed amendment also would prevent state transportation trust fund revenues from being used for non-transportation projects, or from being credited back to the state general fund.
The governor could pull money from the trust fund in cases of emergency for “the immediate preservation of the public health or safety,” but then he would have to supply a plan to repay the fund within five years that would also garner the General Assembly’s approval.
“The combination of increased fuel efficiency, the Great Recession, and rising and fluctuating oil prices have blown a big hole in Maryland’s transportation trust fund which finances investment in roads, bridges, and transit,” the sponsors of the proposed amendment wrote in a joint press release.
The General Assembly couldn’t agree on O’Malley’s proposal to solve the state’s transportation funding issues by raising the gas tax incrementally over three years in response to a 2011 study by the Maryland Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Funding.
That study found the state needs an additional $870 million annually in new transportation revenues just to address current needs.