Split on Tobacco Tax

March 19, 1994

A major General Assembly blow-up is in the making, due to the heavy-handed interference of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller in budget deliberations. Mr. Miller, eager to cater to his new Southern Maryland constituents, insisted that a tobacco tax increase be killed in committee. House leaders strongly disagree with this approach and are marching ahead with their own tax plan.

Mr. Miller is engaging in parochial politics when he should be taking a statewide view of the budgetary situation. House leaders have put together an appealing and sensible package of aid programs linked to a 12.5-cent hike in cigarette taxes. That's half the amount requested by Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Prime beneficiary from the higher levy: public school construction.

This is a popular cause for most suburban legislators. One of Maryland's biggest needs right now is finding money to build enough schools to handle the school-age population boomlet. The House plan would mean a 50 percent increase in the governor's construction spending on schools. It would also mean that half of the $239 million in requests this year for new or improved schools will be addressed -- the biggest state construction allocation in at least a decade.

Yet Mr. Miller will have none of it. He has become a protector of the tobacco interests. That's because his new legislative district includes a big chunk of Southern Maryland, where tobacco farmers wield considerable influence. What better way to curry favor than to take the lead in killing a cigarette tobacco tax increase?

Mr. Miller's colleagues may not be as understanding. He is blocking school construction in the counties, an additional $6 million that lawmakers could allocate in capital bond projects and a mix of other local aid programs linked to the tobacco tax package. His pro-tobacco stand could even jeopardize the re-election chances of some legislators, especially budget committee chairman Laurence Levitan, whose Montgomery County constituents will be up in arms if he fails to bring home more school-building money and more operating funds for local schools -- which also depends on passage of the House tax plan.

House leaders have done a good job of tightly focusing the programs that would benefit directly from the higher tobacco tax -- school construction, cancer research and cancer treatment at University and Hopkins hospitals, and a multi-year effort to help tobacco farmers diversify their crops. The only question is whether Mr. Miller will relent and take a statewide view of these issues in his role as Senate president. He should. He owes it to his Senate colleagues who elected him to the office.

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