Gov. Martin O'Malley called for legislators to pass a sales tax on gasoline, saying on Wednesday that the decision would be unpopular but much needed.
The governor made his comments in Annapolis during his sixth State of the State speech in which he focused on jobs, taxes and what he called tough choices.
"Asking our fellow citizens to do more will not be popular," O'Malley said. "But without anger, fear or meanness, let’s ask one another: how much less education do we think would be good for our children’s future? How much less education do we want? How much less public safety? How many fewer jobs? There are costs, and there are values."
Republicans in the General Assembly criticized O'Malley for policies they said will hurt the same middle class working families the governor said he wants to help.
O'Malley described the state of Maryland as strong in his nearly 33-minute address to legislators gathered in the House of Delegates chamber Wednesday.
But at the same time he touted the achievements of his administration over the last six years, O'Malley said that more needs to be done.
O'Malley briefly touched on the gas tax—the most anticipated portion of his message. The governor said a bill would be filed in the next couple days.
"With a growing population and aging infrastructure, we might soon pay an even steeper price," said O'Malley. "Bridges are not like trees. They do not grow broader and stronger with age."
O'Malley's plan calls for phased-in elimination of the 6 percent sales tax exemption on gasoline.
At current prices, opponents estimate that the change would add 18 cents per gallon to the 23 cents in state gas taxes.
The additional revenue would create "7,500 new jobs building needed roads, bridges, and public transit" in Maryland, said O'Malley.
"Now look, I know that every family is still feeling the hurt of this recession," said O'Malley. "The people I serve are the people you serve. I know this is a very, very difficult ask. But nobody else is going to do this for us except for us."
Seeking to increase transportation funding for construction and repair projects that would create jobs, O'Malley intends to submit a bill repealing the sales tax exemption on a gallon of gasoline—phasing it out by 2 percent each year unless the price of gas spikes.
"It's going to be an extremely tough sell," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who has advised O'Malley to meet with delegations and various elected officials if he hopes to see the tax increased at all in these difficult times.
Aware that legislators are wary of governors transferring money from the Transportation Trust Fund in order to balance the budget, O'Malley said he would like to safeguard future investments in the fund.
"My understanding is the governor is very receptive to people wanting to protect those funds," said Donald Fry, a former state senator and president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. "There will be some sort of legally enforceable way to ensure the money in the transportation fund is used for transportation purposes."
Fry is also a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding, which recommended a state constitutional amendment, or "firewall,"to keep those funds from being used for other purposes.
Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin said the so-called "lock box" was a gimmick.
"There are all kinds of gimmicks to get at people's money," said Pipkin, an upper Eastern Shore Republican. "The gas tax is one of the most impactful taxes and working families would have already paid."
"On one hand (O'Malley) talks jobs and on the other hand he kills jobs with higher taxes," he said.
Pipkin said most of the transportation money has gone to fund transit projects that only three percent of state residents use.
"Before we have a discussion about raising taxes we should examine how government spends the money," said Pipkin.
During his speech, O'Malley told legislators he has taken a balanced approach to managing the state's finances during the recession, including making nearly "$800 million in cuts and spending reductions in the current budget. Including those reductions, cuts in state spending total nearly $7.5 billion since O'Malley took office, the governor said.
Critics said those numbers are misleading.
"He's misguiding the public with those words and words mean a lot," said Del. Sue Aumann, a Baltimore County Republican and member of the House Appropriations Committee. "Our budget every year has gone up $1 billion and we have a perpetual deficit of $1 billion."
"The bank of citizens is running dry," Aumann said.
Capital News Service reporters Dave Nyczepir and Mali Krantz contributed to this story.