ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Gov. Martin O'Malley fired back Wednesday at Comptroller Peter Franchot for criticism of O'Malley's gas tax proposal, describing him as "kind of our version of Mitt Romney."
The comptroller responded with a barbed reference to speculation that O'Malley would run for president in 2016.
The two Democratic officeholders, who've frequently clashed, made the remarks after a Board of Public Works meeting when reporters asked questions about Franchot's criticism of the gas tax proposal on Tuesday.
"He's kind of our version of Mitt Romney," said O'Malley, comparing Franchot to the former Massachusetts governor who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination. "I mean, he's very happy taking opposite sides of every issue and always has throughout his career. I mean, he's decried legalized gambling and also supported bills for legalized gambling. He's supported bills to increase the gas tax and now he decries the gas tax."
Joseph Shapiro, a spokesman for Franchot, said the financial conditions of the state and the nation are very different now than they were more than a dozen years ago when Franchot held different positions on those issues as a member of the House of Delegates representing Montgomery County.
"Peoples' positions evolve with time," Shapiro said.
Franchot, who is the state's tax collector, held a briefing on Tuesday about how the state would implement the proposed sales tax on gasoline. At the briefing, Franchot said applying a 6 percent sales tax on gasoline would be a "shot in the gut" for the middle class and businesses.
When Franchot was asked by reporters for a response, he referred to speculation that the governor may have his sights on a future White House bid.
"I'm sorry if I'm getting in the way of his presidential efforts, but I'm doing my job as comptroller," Franchot said.
The comptroller added: "It's hard enough to focus on the bricks and mortar and dollars of the state budget _ try to keep our fiscal house in order _ without having a, you know, national campaign brought into Maryland."
O'Malley was mentioned in a recent New York Times news analysis as a possible presidential candidate in 2016. The governor also has been criticized by some lawmakers, who say his chairmanship of the Democratic Governors Association has been a distraction from his duties in Annapolis.
The governor's proposal to phase in the 6 percent sales tax on gasoline by 2 percentage points a year would raise about $613 million annually when fully implemented. O'Malley, who has been criticized for using dedicated transportation funds to plug general budget holes, is pushing the plan to address a serious backlog in transportation projects in the state.
"We're all responsible for our own statements and my statement on this is this: that all of these are choices," O'Malley said. "We don't need to do this, but we're going to incur a much bigger cost on every family throughout our state from increased congestion, increased traffic, loss of time, loss of productivity at work, loss of time with families. That's the price of inaction."
O'Malley also said lawmakers will have an opportunity to express their own opinions about where they stand on the issue as the legislation is considered.
Franchot said he believes discussion about a gas tax should wait until the state has fully recovered from the recession.
"The gas tax is a combination of two of the most regressive taxes known, sales tax and gas tax," Franchot said. "It will weaken, not strengthen, the middle class. It will hurt small businesses."
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