The bottle tax

March 06, 1991

The city council made the correct, albeit difficult, choice Monday by voting to keep the controversial bottle tax in effect -- ++ at least temporarily. Political pressures are working against the city; though the city and Baltimore County enacted bottle taxes together in 1989, the General Assembly, strong-armed by the beverage industry, then outlawed the bottle tax in Baltimore County only. That meant the price of a case of soda in the city would be 48 cents higher than in a store right over the county line. The obvious competitive disadvantage alone puts the squeeze on the city to repeal the tax.

Nonetheless the container tax -- 2 cents on the cost of beverages up to 16 ounces and 4 cents for larger containers -- brings in roughly $6 million a year. With the recession straining the already revenue-scarce city treasury, and no serious fiscal aid from the state on the horizon, it would be irresponsible for the council to vote against a mechanism that brings in millions of badly needed dollars. At least in the short-term.

The best solution to this conundrum was suggested by Councilman Tony Ambridge, who made the motion to table a bill repealing the tax, arguing that the city should keep the bottle tax until it can find another source of revenue to replace it. This is a daunting task for council members, whose constituents are already pressed by an onerous property tax. The council is thinking about a fee proposed by Ambridge for private trash haulers. That's a start, but the lesson of the bottle tax fight is clear: Levying a tax on one particular service or product is political dynamite. The council needs to come up with a roster of fees so the burden can be divided more equitably.

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