Governor presses for tobacco tax

February 04, 1994|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writer

Fearful that his proposed quarter-a-pack cigarette tax is going up in smoke, Gov. William Donald Schaefer yesterday cajoled officials from Maryland's counties and cities to fight harder for the tax, which would bring them millions.

In an hour-long private meeting in Annapolis, the governor reminded local officials that the tax would benefit them the most, and he chastised them for not putting enough pressure on lawmakers to pass it.

Of the $70 million the tax would generate, nearly $50 million would be sent straight to the 23 counties and Baltimore for public schools, health programs and public safety.

About half of that would be dedicated for prekindergarten classes, for programs that help students who do not speak English and for schools in poverty-stricken areas, including Baltimore.

"He called us in because the reality is there are some problems with getting the tax through, and he thinks we all need to join together to work for its passage," said David S. Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

Mr. Bliden said his group has made no secret of its support for the tax proposed Jan. 13, but it has not developed a lobbying strategy yet. He said he did not know whether any county executives would bring their considerable clout to the effort.

Mr. Schaefer wants to raise the cigarette tax by 25 cents, to a total of 61 cents a pack. If he is successful, Maryland would have the second highest cigarette tax in the nation, trailing only the District of Columbia.

The governor appears to be justified in his concern about the tax's chances in the General Assembly, judging from comments by legislative budget leaders yesterday.

Leaders of the House Appropriations Committee are "strongly opposed" to raising taxes to pay for programs that could lead to budget problems in future years, said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the panel.

The cigarette tax ultimately will bring in less money over time as more smokers decide it's cheaper to kick the habit, he explained. At the same time, however, the demand for the revenue will be increasing in the counties and Baltimore.

Even the governor believes that the tax ultimately will bring in less money. He said he proposed it primarily to discourage smoking since studies show that people buy fewer cigarettes when the cost rises.

Delegates may support a more modest cigarette tax increase if its revenues would be used to pay off some of the state's debts, such as unpaid bills for state employees' health insurance, Chairman Rawlings said.

Mr. Rawlings' counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Laurence Levitan, agreed there may be some support for a smaller tax for some special purpose.

"It may happen, but you don't see any signs of it happening right now," said Mr. Levitan, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

To make something happen, the governor will be meeting with groups that stand to benefit from the 25-cent increase, including advocates for education and for the disabled, said his chief of staff, Paul Schurick.

"Why the teachers aren't down here, the school superintendents, the school board members, is truly unbelieveable," Mr. Schurick said. "I do not understand why they're not here in Annapolis demanding that the legislature support the tax and approve the money. And I say the same thing about county and municipal government leaders."

Of the remaining $20 million generated, $13 million would pay for programs for mentally or physically disabled Marylanders, while $7 million would help open a school for disruptive students and expand services to the elderly, homeless and poor.

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