Steinberg wants to boost cigarette tax to $2 a pack CAMPAIGN 1994

February 22, 1994|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Sun Staff Writer

Standing in front of a cemetery, Lt. Gov. Melvin A. "Mickey" Steinberg proposed yesterday raising Maryland's cigarette tax to $2 a pack as a deterrent to smoking.

Mr. Steinberg then lashed out at his boss, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, criticizing Mr. Schaefer's plan for a quarter-a-pack increase as nothing more than an attempt to increase government spending.

"Two dollars would deter smoking; 25 cents will not," said Mr. Steinberg, a Democratic candidate for governor, as he held up a black cigarette pack emblazoned with a skull and crossbones.

"It's a health issue, not a revenue issue," he said.

It seemed more like an election-year issue as Mr. Steinberg made the announcement against a backdrop of gravestones on a hillside off Old Frederick Road in West Baltimore.

Campaign aides selected a similar site in Silver Spring to announce the proposal in the Montgomery County area, an effort to capture media attention in the Washington suburbs.

A one-time smoker, Mr. Steinberg cited Maryland's dubious distinction as the state with the second-highest cancer rate in the nation. He said he was proposing his tax increase primarily as an anti-smoking measure.

"You've got to be kidding me," said Page W. Boinest, Mr. Schaefer's press secretary. "A quarter increase, unlike $2, is politically achievable -- and a strong deterrent.

"The governor's 20-cent tax two years ago led to a 21 percent decline in smoking that we've documented. Success, in stages, is helping reduce the number of smokers."

Mr. Steinberg said he would propose his cigarette tax as an amendment to Mr. Schaefer's plan when the General Assembly's budget committees hear the administration bill in coming weeks.

Mr. Schaefer's plan -- already in trouble in the legislature -- would increase the state's tax on a pack of cigarettes to 61 cents from 36 cents.

If it is approved, Maryland would have the nation's second-highest cigarette tax, trailing only the District of Columbia, where the tax is 65 cents.

Mr. Steinberg also used the opportunity yesterday to take a shot at Mr. Schaefer, from whom he has been trying to distance himself politically.

The lieutenant governor, who was Mr. Schaefer's running mate in 1986 and 1990, said the governor's proposed cigarette tax is "fiscally irresponsible" because it would help balance a state budget that is larger than the one a legislative advisory committee has recommended.

The Spending Affordability Committee has said the budget should grow by 5 percent next year. Mr. Schaefer's $13.5 billion proposal would mean a 6 percent increase.

The governor's spending plan relies on an extra $70 million from the cigarette tax to pay for a variety of popular programs, including aid to local governments and expanded pre-kindergarten classes.

Mr. Steinberg estimated that his own plan would raise $560 million more in tax revenues at the outset but said that money would decrease as the $2-a-pack levy discouraged more and more smokers.

The lieutenant governor's plan calls for the additional tax revenue to be earmarked not for new programs, but for the state's "rainy day fund," a contingency account used for budget shortfalls.

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