Md. motorists dealing with 6.6-cent gasoline tax hike; Hogan, Franchot joust over potential actions

With Maryland motorists facing the largest state gas tax increase in a decade, two of the state’s top elected officials are looking to each other for a temporary way out.

Starting July 1, motorists can expect to pay nearly 43 cents in taxes on every gallon of gas, according to preliminary data from the state Office of the Comptroller. The 6.6-cent increase would be the largest since the passage of a law that tied future increases to inflation.

On Monday, the increase triggered letters from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot. Each is looking to the other for help in pausing the tax hike.

“I know that you agree we should do more to give Marylanders a break from these punishing prices,” Hogan wrote in his letter. “That is why it is my hope that you will use every legal and regulatory power at your disposal to halt or minimize the impact of the accelerating gas taxes, and that you consider granting an extension for paying the taxes and removing penalties for unpaid tax, including the revocation of business licenses.”

It is not clear what power Franchot might have to delay or defer the impending increase.

Franchot, in his response to Hogan, called on the governor to declare an economic state of emergency and “temporarily suspend the gas tax.”

Franchot lamented the failure by the governor and Democratic leaders of the General Assembly to reach an agreement to extend a temporary gas tax holiday.

“Absent any executive or legislative remedy — and without any legal or regulatory flexibility afforded to me by law, which my office is continuing to explore — Marylanders will unnecessarily be financially burdened at a time when so many are already struggling,” Franchot wrote. “Moments like these require an all-hands-on-deck approach, and I am committed to utilizing every legal and regulatory tool at my disposal to respond to this crisis.”

Even if such tools existed or Hogan could somehow impose an economic state of emergency, the increase would only be delayed, not stopped.

“We knew it was going to be a big one,” said Kirk McCauley, legislative director of the Washington-Maryland-Delaware Service Station and Auto Repair Association, which represents 700-800 members. “And supply is not getting better.”

The average cost of a gallon of gas in Maryland on Monday was more than $4.61 per gallon. Nationally, the cost is nearly $4.60 per gallon, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.

“After consulting with state budget and transportation officials, I am confident that the state can absorb the financial impact of foregoing this ill-conceived and ill-timed tax increase,” wrote Hogan. “Given shaky oil markets, record inflation, and a skyrocketing cost of living, the continued surges in gas prices are inflicting more pain at the pump than Marylanders can bear. I am calling on you to take immediate action to provide much-needed relief, particularly as citizens of our state begin to plan their summer travels.”

Hogan, in his letter, referenced other actions Franchot has taken during the pandemic to ease burdens on individuals and businesses. In the recent past, Franchot has delayed collection of sales taxes, extended the deadline for filing individual income taxes three consecutive years, and pushed back deadlines for estimate tax payments.

Franchot’s office is responsible for collecting motor fuel taxes.

In 2013, the legislature and then Gov. Martin O’Malley passed legislation that increased the state’s gas tax for the first time in two decades. Such increases are politically unpopular, so the law included automatic annual increases tied to the Consumer Price Index.

Each year, the Office of the Comptroller is required to set the new rate based on the annual rate of inflation. That new rate takes effect July 1.

Currently, the state’s excise tax on gas is about 36 cents per gallon.

An analysis by the Department of Legislative Services earlier this year projected an increase around 4%. That estimate came even as inflation was rising by 8% since December.

“This tax increase, while hardship-inducing for Marylanders at any time, is simply unconscionable at this moment when gas prices are already at their highest level in recorded history amid a period of prolonged inflation and economic uncertainty,” Hogan wrote.

Earlier this year, Franchot called for a 90-day gas tax holiday. Hogan, House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson reached an agreement for a 30-day period.

The estimated $100 million hit to the state’s Transportation Trust Fund was offset by $100 million from the state’s record $7 billion budget surplus.

As the 90-day General Assembly session came to a close, legislative leaders had little interest in an extension.

The day before the holiday ended in mid-April, the price of a gallon of gas was $3.69 per gallon. 

(This story will be updated.)