Baltimore Sun: Voting for transportation fund lockbox is a ‘no-brainer’

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Editor’s note: The following op-ed appeared on BaltimoreSun.com on October 16.

By Donald C. Fry

In the November 4 general election, Maryland voters will be asked to approve something long sought by transportation advocates – a “lockbox” for the state’s transportation fund.

Question 1 on all ballots will ask voters to ratify a lockbox amendment to the state’s constitution that was passed by the General Assembly in 2013 as part of a legislative package to raise new revenue to fund Maryland’s roads, bridges, transit, port and airport infrastructure.

The amendment would restrict the use of the state’s Transportation Trust Fund to “constructing and maintaining an adequate highway system or any other transportation-related purpose.” It’s clearly intended to keep state lawmakers from customarily “raiding” the trust fund – more than half of which comes from gas taxes and fees paid by Marylanders for vehicle titling and registration – and using it for non-transportation purposes, such as balancing general operating budgets.

To most people, voting “yes” on Question 1 should seem like a no-brainer.

That’s because it is. Despite skepticism from some who contend that perpetually clever lawmakers in Annapolis will easily find a way around the amendment and will continue to use the Transportation Trust Fund as a budget-balancing reservoir of money if they want to, the specific language of this amendment has more teeth to it than skeptics want to acknowledge.

It’s true that, at first glance, the amendment’s requirement for a supermajority vote in order to transfer money out of the trust fund for non-transportation uses seems easily achievable in a legislature where the dominant party already has a supermajority. But the specific conditions under which using trust fund proceeds for non-transportation purposes could be brought up for that vote are highly restrictive.

The amendment language allows non-transportation uses only if the governor proclaims a “state of emergency” and declares that the “use of funds for defense or relief purposes is necessary” for the “immediate preservation of the public health or safety.”

Further, before the lawmakers enact the legislation the amendment requires that the state Treasurer advise the Governor and General Assembly of any potential impact of the transfer on the credit rating of bonds or other debt instruments. Furthermore, a transfer or diversion may not occur if the action would result in a downgrade of the Department of Transportation’s bonds.

Admittedly, there is an abundance of fiscal creativity under the State House dome. But these provisions pretty much take a run-of-the-mill operating budget shortfall out of play as a legitimate use of Transportation Trust Fund proceeds.

Lawmakers are correct when they point out that most of the $640 million (not counting county and municipal highway user revenue funds) they have withdrawn from the transportation fund for non-transportation purposes over the last three decades has been repaid to the fund.

Nevertheless, it’s inaccurate to presume that the current custom of drawing from the transportation fund to balance the operating budget – and eventually replenishing the fund – has no negative effect on the state’s ability to finance needed transportation infrastructure.

Habitual “borrowing” from the Transportation Trust Fund defeats the purpose of having a stable, reliable funding source for infrastructure, one of the core pillars for a competitive business environment as identified by the Greater Baltimore Committee’s Gaining the Competitive Edge report.

“Borrowing” interferes with the Maryland Department of Transportation’s ability to implement large, strategic projects that are funded over several years as well as to meet short-term system preservation needs.  If money keeps going to the General Fund, the state’s transportation department can’t commit to big, multi-year projects, according to transportation experts.

It’s also well worth noting that the reason citizens support dedicating revenue to the Transportation Trust Fund is because they know where the money is going and what it is to be used for.  Borrowing betrays that trust and, over time, cultivates cynicism among constituents.

Even if you’re a cynic who contends that in Annapolis any barrier can be cleverly worked around, you must concede – as a recent Sun editorial pointed out – that this amendment, at the very least, requires an up-front recorded vote on any fiscal diversions from the transportation fund.

In 2013 lawmakers passed significant revenue increases to begin to address a growing transportation funding crisis.  I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt that they also passed this constitutional amendment because the voters demand that the funding is used as intended.

In any case, Maryland clearly needs to lock down its funding dedicated to transportation. Voting “yes” to Question 1 gives Marylanders a tangible opportunity to do just that.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee.  

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