ANNAPOLIS -- The paint industry turned out in force yesterday to protest a proposed tax on paint, saying it is being singled out to pay for a cure for the statewide problem of lead paint poisoning.
Paint store owners said they'll lose business as the cost of paint goes up by 50 or 60 cents a gallon, contractors said the state will lose tax revenue because they'll be forced to buy their paints in neighboring states, and manufacturers said a paint tax could force them to close brand-name stores and put employees out of work.
Despite yesterday's opposition, the measure drew broad support from the Schaefer administration's housing, health and environmental departments; from pediatricians; from advocates for the poor; and from the parents of children permanently injured by ingesting lead paint.
Mostly, though, paint industry witnesses who appeared before the House Environmental Matters Committee yesterday said the lead paint problem is not their fault.
Jack Lass, owner of a Wheaton paint store, for example, said that he bought the store 2 1/2 years ago and that he has never sold a drop of lead-based paint -- which has been outlawed for residential use since 1972. Yet he finds himself threatened by the paint tax contained in legislation pending before the House committee this year.
The bill (HB 1265) was concocted and supported by an unusual coalition of health advocates -- who want to prevent children from being poisoned by chipping or flaking lead paint -- and a property-owners organization that has fought all but the most modest efforts by advocates to do something about lead paint.
The carrot for landlords in this year's bill is the potential for immunity from lawsuits if they voluntarily join a program in which they would have to pay a fee, subject their properties to inspection for lead paint, and participate in a lead paint education program for tenants.
The bill, sponsored by Dels. Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, and Virginia M. Thomas, D-Howard, also calls for creation of a Lead Paint Poisoning Prevention and Compensation Fund that would provide grants to help tenants move from properties with lead paint and to make financial awards to poisoned victims.
Owners of every rental unit in the state would have to pay a $5 annual fee, and property owners participating in the program would have to pay additional $10 application fees and $20 annual fees.
But the biggest single source of income for the fund would be the proposed tax on paint, to be levied by volume sold on a sliding scale beginning at a quarterly $250 tax for less than 1,000 gallons sold.
Lobbyist Ira C. Cooke, representing the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore, incensed paint-industry witnesses by referring to those who manufacture and sell paint as the "purveyors of the poison."
William A. Clark, a former delegate and member of the committee who runs a hardware store in Harford County, said his store sells about 1,000 gallons of paint a year, but none with lead.
"The landlords have cut themselves a sweetheart deal," he said, saying the proposed fee for participating in the lead paint poisoning prevention program was far less than they otherwise would have had to pay for liability insurance and lawyers.
"The advocates made a deal with the devil," Mr. Clark added. "They all got into bed together and said, 'Now, who's not here who we can get to pay for all this? The paint dealers aren't here.' "