11/6/2009Maryland Politicians, Judges, Bureaucrats Drive Toll Free
Maryland officials responsible for imposing tolls on drivers do not pay any tolls themselves.
Among the 15,000 Maryland state employees who drive on area toll roads without paying are judges, lawmakers and powerful bureaucrats. The Maryland Politics Watch website used a freedom of information request in August to discover that 128 of 188 legislators took advantage of a perquisite giving officials a scrutiny and bill-free E-ZPass transponder -- despite already receiving a $600 yearly travel expense allowance from taxpayers. After being exposed, the General Assembly leadership moved to limit the fallout by abruptly canceling the program on September 25.
"Currently, many members of the General Assembly have non-revenue E-ZPass accounts or E-ZPass accounts with non-revenue accommodations," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D) wrote. "This recession requires us to find efficiencies and reduce unnecessary spending wherever possible; therefore, we have asked the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA) to terminate the non-revenue E-ZPass program for the legislative branch. Individual lawmakers will continue to be eligible to submit for reimbursement for tolls incurred on official legislative travel."
When Maryland Politics Watch informally attempted to learn the names of the politicians driving on toll roads at taxpayer expense, the MdTA initially claimed "privacy and security" concerns prevented disclosure. The agency then wrote to lawmakers informing them of the inquiry, allowing fifty-six lawmakers to cancel their accounts to avoid embarrassment before a formal request for the list of names was granted.
Authority to issue the free rides came from section 6.15 of the MdTA's contract with bond holders, a document that received little public scrutiny. The hidden provision applies to, "officials and employees of the executive, legislative and judicial departments of the state." Ambulances and other emergency vehicles also receive a special transponder that allows free passage.
Maryland Politics Watch author Adam Pagnucco slammed Democrats for taking advantage of the system.
"Delegate Ben Kramer (D-19) is a millionaire developer who has dumped $220,450 of his own money into his last two political campaigns," Pagnucco wrote. "Does he really need a free E-ZPass? [In Montgomery County] one of our Senators and thirteen of our twenty-four delegates drive toll-free, including some of our most liberal members. We get no moral high ground this time."
Pagnucco was equally harsh with the GOP.
"Fifteen of the fifty Republicans in the General Assembly carry free E-ZPasses," Pagnucco wrote. "This is the worst hypocrisy of all. Over and over again, the Republicans have called for big spending cuts while jealously guarding their E-ZPerks."
Last month, Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman (R) asked the Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell whether the judicial branch planned to give up free rides for judges.