City Council votes to repeal bottle tax one month early

April 16, 1991|By Martin C. Evans

The Baltimore City Council, which last week turned back an identical measure in a maneuver fraught with political overtones, voted last night its preliminary approval of a bill that would bring an early end on May 31 to the so-called bottle tax.

The tax, which nets the city about $6 million annually, has been bitterly opposed by the bottling industry as well as liquor merchants and supermarket executives.

Opponents have argued that the city tax -- which adds 2 cents to the price of soda and beer containers under 16 ounces and 4 cents to larger containers -- induces shoppers to take their business to Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties in search of lower beverage prices.

But several members of the City Council said they did not want to eliminate a badly-needed revenue source before knowing how they could replace the money, and voted against last night's amendment that makes the repeal date, May 31, a month earlier than the original one.

The bill, which faces a final passage vote by the council before it becomes law, received 13 votes last night. Six council opponents abstained.

Opponents to the early repeal date, who appeared to have the backing of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, said they preferred to allow the tax to continue until June 30, which is the repeal date written in the unamended bill.

They said the early repeal amendment, which caught several members flat-footed when it was offered by Councilman John A. Schaefer, D-1st, only moments before the bill came up for a vote, could eliminate the $6 million revenue source before the council has a chance to pass a proposed increase of fees charged for the use of city-owned trash disposal facilities.

A bill that would increase the trash disposal fee is expected to come up for a vote before the council next Monday. But with the Schmoke administration estimating that this fee increase will generate only $4.5 million and council members estimating that the fee could net as much as $11 million, it remained unclear whether the added revenue would make up for the loss of the bottle tax.

Mr. Schmoke, who plans to bring a preliminary city budget for fiscal 1992 to the Board of Estimates tomorrow, had opposed the end of the bottle tax, saying the city could ill afford to reject tax revenues at a time when it has already been forced to lay off workers and cut back on services.

But Peter N. Marudas, his liaison to the council, said yesterday that the mayor was resigned to the repeal of the bottle tax and that his chief concern now is the timely passage of an increase in the trash-disposal charge, known as a tipping fee, to avoid a revenue gap.

Last week, council members refused to pass a bottle tax repeal bill identical to last night's. It was sponsored by Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers, D-3rd, who led the fight to enact the original bottle tax two years ago, but who withdrew his support for the tax after Baltimore County voted to repeal a similar tax there last year.

Council members who voted to pass the bottle bill in 1989 have been the target of radio advertising by the Baltimore City Coalition Against Unfair Taxes, a lobby group of bottling companies, liquor stores and supermarkets.

After last night's vote to end the tax, Council President Mary Pat Clarke warned the coalition to pull the ads or risk having the council balk next week at giving final passage to the bill ending the bottle tax.

"We will not have our members bullied," Mrs. Clarke said. "We expect to hear nothing on the airwaves but sweet, soft music from the bottlers."

Katherine Whiting, a member of the coalition who represented Coca Cola Enterprises North, said the coalition would end the ads immediately.

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