Schmoke ally seeks revival of bottle tax Councilwoman Dixon opposes proposal for piggyback raise

Her plan gaining support

Some members want further budget cuts to avert any (( increase

April 20, 1996|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, a key ally of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, is leading a charge against the mayor's push to increase the piggyback tax by trying to revive the bottle tax.

Mrs. Dixon intends to introduce a bill Monday that would add a 2-cent tax on beverage containers of 16 ounces or less and a 4-cent levy on larger sizes. The tax, which is being phased out at the insistence of the previous council, has generated about $6.1 million yearly.

The proposal comes as the City Council and Mr. Schmoke begin a two-month wrangle over the city's $2.3 billion budget. The council, whose approval is required for the budget, is reluctant to raise taxes and is likely to make deep cuts in some agencies. The mayor has said raising taxes is the only way to hold off severe cuts in city services.

This week, the mayor told the council he would seek a piggyback tax increase that would require residents to pay to the city an amount calculated as a percentage of the state income tax of 55 percent instead of 50 percent. It would be the first increase since 1967 and would net $10 million yearly, according to Mr. Schmoke.

Mrs. Dixon, who represents the 4th District, said that she would make up the difference in revenue by additional cuts in the budget.

"With this [bottle] tax, you make a choice to pay it or not," Mrs. Dixon said.

Council members are feeling the heat from residents who are flooding their offices with phone calls and letters urging them to dump the mayor's proposal. Council members have said that they would slash the budget before backing the piggyback tax increase.

But Mrs. Dixon's bottle tax proposal was beginning to win some preliminary support from her colleagues yesterday, It has a better chance of passing than the mayor's piggyback tax increase for two reasons:

One, this council has seven new members who did not commit to repealing the bottle tax last June. And two, the re-elected members who chose to phase out the tax are open to reversing their votes.

"I've been a little upset ever since I [voted for repeal]," said 1st District Councilwoman Lois Garey, who says that she was lobbied hard by the bottle industry, which claimed that jobs would be saved. Now, "I would be willing to look at it again."

Freshman 5th District Councilwoman Helen L. Holton said she wouldn't be inclined to raise taxes at all but, given the two alternatives, "I would support a container tax over the piggyback tax."

But other council members who voted for the bottle tax phase-out last June say that their votes would not change this year.

"I am absolutely opposed to that," said 5th District

Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector.

Mr. Schmoke, was out of town yesterday. His press secretary, Alonza Williams, had not studied the tax issues and said he could not speak about them. But highly placed sources within the Schmoke administration said the mayor knows about Mrs. Dixon's proposal and was not immediately opposed to it.

All council members say that, once they get the full budget, they will look for areas to slash costs so that no tax increase will be necessary. The City Charter allows the City Council only to cut money from the budget, not to add expenditures.

At the earliest, the council will receive the full budget May 21, because it has to be submitted to and approved by the Board of Estimates first. The council will schedule public hearings and votes in time to return it to the mayor for signature by June 10 -- 20 days before the end of the fiscal year.

The mayor has said that if the council does not pass his proposed piggyback tax increase, agencies like the Department Recreation and Parks, the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Baltimore Museum of Art will take the lion's share of cuts.

But the council need not follow those recommendations. Members can cut from other city agencies instead, as long as the budget is balanced.

This week, council members are being pressured to pass the piggyback tax by heads of the city agencies that the mayor says will be hardest hit if the levy doesn't pass.

Dr. Carla D. Hayden, director of Enoch Pratt Free Library -- one of the agencies targeted to benefit from the piggyback tax increase -- will meet with the council Monday afternoon to urge members to pass Mr. Schmoke's tax.

Mr. Schmoke said he will have the piggyback tax increase introduced at Monday's council meeting,

It is likely that Council President Lawrence A. Bell III will refer that bill and Mrs. Dixon's bill to the Taxation and Finance Committee, headed by 3rd District Councilman Martin O'Malley. Mr. O'Malley, who said he opposes the mayor's piggyback tax increase, said that he will not schedule the required public hearings until the council receives the full budget.

"I don't think that it would be too bright to all of a sudden send out a blank check for 1997 without seeing what we pay for in 1997," Mr. O'Malley said.

Pub Date: 4/20/96

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