The Baltimore City Council dealt a severe blow to efforts to repeal the so-called bottle tax yesterday, voting to table a bill that would repeal the tax that pours $6 million per year into the city treasury, but leaving open the possibility of ending the tax later.
Opponents of the tax, who have said that the bottle tax forces the beverage industry to bear an inordinate share of the city's fiscal difficulties, backed away from the repeal bill yesterday, saying it would be irresponsible to eliminate a critical revenue source now that tough fiscal times have forced the city to lay off workers and freeze wages.
"The question is, what do we replace it with?" said Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd, who made the motion to table the bill and who earlier proposed a bill to raise fees for private trash haulers who use city disposal facilities. "I think it's incumbent on the council to, as we phase the bottle tax out, . . . find another revenue source to replace it with."
But supporters of the repeal bill, which was up for preliminary approval last night, said they would move again to end the bottle tax if the council approved Mr. Ambridge's bill, which would raise as much as $8 million annually through a $10 per ton increase on fees paid by trash haulers that use city disposal facilities.
Pressure to end the container tax has come to a head since December, when a similar tax in Baltimore County expired, making Baltimore a bottle-tax island surrounded by a sea of no-tax jurisdictions.
Baltimore and Baltimore County enacted bottle taxes in 1989 to increase revenue and encourage recycling. Both taxes added 2 cents to the cost of beverages in glass or plastic containers of up to 16 ounces and 4 cents for those over 16 ounces. They did not apply to milk or juice containers.
The expiration of the county tax has left beverage merchants in the city at a disadvantage, city lawmakers say, because city vendors must collect an extra 48 cents for a case of soda. That also hurts other sales in the city, bottle-tax opponents say, because city residents who go to the county to avoid beverage taxes do the rest of their shopping there.
Councilman Timothy D. Murphy, D-6th, chairman of the council's taxation and finance committee, said the city never should have adopted the bottle tax. He said now that the revenue-scarce city treasury had become addicted to bottle tax revenues, it might be difficult to create the political will to cut them off.
"I think it has been a huge mistake," he said.
Beverage merchants and bottling industry representatives lobbied hard to end the bottle bill.
W. Edward Gregory, director of government affairs for Pepsi Cola East, the bottling company's regional office, said he had urged all 19 council members since Friday to support repeal of the tax.
"I guess I should act surprised, but I was told before the meeting this might fail," he said.
In another action last night, thecouncil voted preliminary approval of a repeal of the city's prohibition against telephone, leafleting and door-to-door solicitations by real estate agents.
Curbs on such real estate sales practices were put in place dozens of years ago as a bulwark against unscrupulous real estate salespeople who persuaded white homeowners to sell their homes quickly by preying on their fears of integration, a practice known as blockbusting.
Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, D-3rd, one of four council members who voted against the anti-solicitation repeal, said that the city already was struggling to retain residents concerned about crime, poor schools and neighborhood decay and that neighborhoods in Northeast Baltimore still were susceptible to blockbusting.
"We're worried about the [salesperson] who says, "Did you know that Mrs. Smith just listed with us and by the way, did you hear about the mugging in the park and the fire station that just closed?' " he said.
But council members who voted to repeal the anti-blockbusting measures noted that a similar law in Baltimore County was overturned in November by a federal judge, who ruled that the law breached 14th Amendment protections of commercial speech from unwarranted government regulation.
Supporters of the repeal said the city law could be relaxed without risking a resurgence of blockbusting.
They noted that a bill signed into law in January by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke gave the Community Relations Commission the power to impose fines of up to $50,000 and otherwise enforce measures prohibiting real estate sales people from implying that a change in the racial composition of a neighborhood could bring on crime or otherwise affect home values there.