Senate negotiators in the legislature's budget conference committee have a difficult task in front of them. Not only do they have to find a graceful way to concur with the House on a higher cigarette tax that will free up $42 million in school construction funds, but these negotiators must do so in the face of strong opposition from Senate President Mike Miller to a higher fee on tobacco.
Mr. Miller, D-Prince George's, is wrong on this issue. He is taking a highly parochial view to help his reelection chances in the Southern Maryland part of his district, where tobacco farms still dot the landscape. But from a statewide perspective, from a public health perspective and from a budgetary perspective, a 12.5-cent increase in the cigarette tax makes sense.
For starters, the higher price will deter many youngsters from getting hooked on nicotine. It may even persuade some adults to give up the habit. That would have long-term benefits for Maryland, which has one of the highest cancer rates in the country.
It would also decrease the amount of tax dollars spent by the state for Medicaid patients with cancer-linked illnesses. Strictly from a public policy point of view, deterring smoking is in Maryland's best interest.
But there are strong budgetary pluses, too. The higher tax would lead to a 50 percent increase in school construction spending, which means dozens of new school projects in Maryland counties at a time when overcrowding is a major local concern. Cancer research and care for cancer patients at both Johns Hopkins and University Hospital would receive a $10 million boost from tobacco tax receipts. And $2.5 million would be earmarked to help Southern Maryland tobacco farmers diversify into other areas of agribusiness. It would be the first of a multi-year commitment. Additionally, $7 million would be placed in reserve in case budget expenses exceed current estimates.
And there's an added incentive to approve a cigarette tax hike: Gov. William Donald Schaefer refuses to submit any supplemental appropriation requests unless the Senate relents on the tax. That means the legislature's plans to shift priorities within the budget would be blocked. Mr. Miller is in a no-win situation on this one.
A higher tobacco tax is the responsible approach to take. Only Mr. Miller's opposition seems to stand in the way of a sensible budget compromise. It is time for the Senate president to act like a statesman on this issue and do what is best for all the citizens of Maryland.