ANNAPOLIS - Maryland can't afford to wait any longer to fix its crumbling roads and bridges, and raising the gasoline tax is the fix the state needs, Gov. Martin O'Malley told state lawmakers Wednesday.

Joined by county leaders and several business owners, the governor defended his proposal to add the state's 6 percent sales tax to the cost of gasoline before House and Senate panels amid waning support from lawmakers and protests from residents who say prices at the pump are already too high.

Phasing in the sales tax over the next three years would add roughly 20 cents to the current 23-cent flat tax on gasoline, if prices don't continue to climb.

Also in Annapolis
• The Maryland Senate approved a smoking ban in cars with a passenger under 8 years old, while some lawmakers warned the bill was too far-reaching and would lead to more outrageous regulations.
• Opponents of same-sex marriage started a petition drive to stop a new law legalizing gay nuptials. The petition needs 55,736 signatures by June 30 to place the measure on the November ballot.
• Senators threatened to withhold $500,000 from the Department of General Services in its budget unless more information is released about Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to move the state's housing department from Anne Arundel County to Prince George's County.

But as fuel prices rose to an average $3.83 a gallon in Maryland on Wednesday -- a 57-cent jump since the beginning of the year, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic -- residents and business leaders rallied against the governor's proposal.

"I think [O'Malley's] the only person in Maryland that doesn't understand that businesses and hard-working families can't afford this massive, middle-class tax hike," said Nick Loffer, grassroots director for Americans for Prosperity-Maryland.

Loffer and a few dozen protesters gathered outside the State House on Wednesday afternoon, asking lawmakers to kill the tax plan.

"This is an absolute affront to Maryland motorists," said Keith Madsen, who owns Hess gas stations in Elkridge and Towson. "We are getting whacked."

O'Malley says the gas tax would increase the typical driver's fuel costs by only $2 a week once the full sales tax is phased in, but The Washington Examiner has reported that the average two-vehicle family would spend roughly $400 more each year on fuel -- a figure that would rise if the cost of gas continues to climb.

AAA Mid-Atlantic predicts pump prices will peak at $4.25 in late May, while some analysts say $5 isn't out of the question.

"There's never a good time to raise taxes, but now is definitely not the right time to pass such an increase on to Maryland families, who already are paying record-high gas prices, which are expected to continue to rise in the coming months," said Ragina Averella, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Increasing the gas tax, last raised in 1992, will never be a popular move, O'Malley acknowledged, but officials can't allow the costs to repave roads and fix bridges to continue to rise without a similar increase in funding, he said.

"Inaction, especially in this case, has a cost," O'Malley said. "No one has wanted to address this problem for 20 years, and as a result, the people of this state have been paying the cost in many ways."

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker said the counties cannot afford basic road repair such as pothole fixes and repaving without more money.

"We have done everything within our power in Prince George's to raise revenues to meet the needs we face, but these needs that we face are shared by the state," Baker said.