Tax raise wins favor GOP challengers may back increase on cigarettes

'Voters take it seriously'

County residents give positive response to drive to curb smoking

July 16, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

An article in Thursday's Howard County edition of The Sun inaccurately described Sen. Martin G. Madden as the only Republican co-sponsor of cigarette-tax legislation in the state Senate this year. Montgomery County Republican Sen. Jean W. Roesser was also a co-sponsor.

The Sun regrets the error.

A couple of local Republican candidates are talking openly about the possibility of supporting a big tax increase, and a new poll suggests that's not necessarily a bad idea.

That's because the Republicans in question are running against incumbent Democrats who support such a tax increase -- on cigarettes.

Anti-smoking advocates are pushing an initiative to raise the state tax on cigarettes by $1.50 a pack in an effort to curb smoking by youths, and they promise to be a force in this fall's General Assembly elections. Candidates are already on notice in this county, known for its smoking-averse public policy, as national tobacco politics gets local.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"Voters in Howard County strongly, very strongly, favor the children's initiative, the $1.50 tobacco tax increase," said Vincent DeMarco, executive director of the Maryland Children's Initiative. "Candidates in Howard County need to take this very, very seriously because voters take it very seriously."

The initiative's poll numbers in Howard, to be formally announced today, are among the best in the state. Fifty-six percent of likely voters "strongly" favored the tax increase, and 15 percent registered lukewarm support. A majority of voters polled said they would vote for a candidate who supported the tax increase and against someone who opposed it, regardless of party.

The numbers are based on a small sample -- 84 likely voters were polled here -- but candidates aren't surprised Howard voters would support an anti-tobacco measure.

"Howard countians are educated. They're health-conscious," said Michael Grasso, a North Laurel Republican who is running in southern Howard district against Democratic incumbent Dels. Shane Pendergrass and Frank S. Turner. "I fully expect that to be one of the big issues this year."

Grasso, owner of a medical software company, considers himself a cautious supporter of the tax increase while expressing qualms about how the money raised would be spent. Such qualms also trouble Todd A. Arterburn, a Republican running against Democratic incumbent Del. Elizabeth Bobo.

More research

"I would support any effort that is likely to result in the reduction in teen smoking," Arterburn said carefully yesterday, adding that he wants to do more research before he decides his position. "I don't want to enact something like that unless there is some evidence that it accomplishes what it proposes to."

The children's initiative is asking all candidates for the General Assembly to pledge support of the tax increase, and backers say they will advertise who is and is not on their side. The battle lines have been mostly predictably partisan: The major Democratic gubernatorial candidates back the increase, the GOP gubernatorial candidates oppose it.

But Howard County, where Republican officials reign, is a bit of an oddity. The county has one of the toughest anti-smoking laws on the East Coast, and it boasts the only Republican state senator to co-sponsor the cigarette tax increase, Martin G. Madden.

Silent in Howard

One Republican state Senate candidate who opposes the increase, David P. Maier of Elkridge, said he brings up the cigarette tax issue in the Baltimore County side of his district, where some residents share his views, but he doesn't say a word about it when he knocks on doors in Howard.

Still, anti-smoking advocates may not win more allies in the legislature in Howard's races. Grasso and Arterburn are running against Democrats who back the cigarette tax increase. Republican state Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, who opposes it, is a popular two-term incumbent -- though he did say yesterday he is "willing to listen" to what advocates have to say during the next legislative session.

At the least, anti-smoking advocates can hope they will hold on to their supporters in Howard.

"I think supporting this issue is going to help candidates," said Bobo, one of the more ardent backers of the tax increase. "I think this is going to be a positive factor in the election for me."

Pub Date: 7/16/98

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