The governor's plan to increase the tax on cigarettes by a dollar a pack is in trouble in the General Assembly, key lawmakers said yesterday.
The bill, which would also impose a new 25 percent tax on other tobacco products, is expected to survive a committee vote this week in the House of Delegates, but faces stronger opposition in the Senate.
"The economy in Maryland is continuing to soar, so why would we want to impose an onerous tax on a portion of our citizenry, no matter how well-meaning it is?" asked Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "I just can't see us backing any tax increase this year."
Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman said she does not believe there are currently enough votes in the Budget and Taxation Committee to send the bill to the Senate floor.
"I think it's very tenuous," Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the committee, said yesterday. "I think there's some real reluctance among some of the committee members to move forward with this."
One member, Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, said he agreed with Hoffman's assessment. "There [is] just not a strong will on the committee to raise a tax when we've got a large surplus," the Montgomery County Republican said.
Despite the gloomy predictions, it is too early to write off a bill that is a centerpiece of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's legislative agenda.
Ray Feldmann, the governor's press secretary, said Glendening can be persuasive when he has strong feelings about a bill, and "he has not lost confidence."
"The governor is going to work with individual members on this," Feldmann said. "To him, this is first and foremost a health issue."
The bill aims to price cigarettes out of the reach of children, he said.
But even if Glendening can persuade members to support a tax, the bill is unlikely to survive intact.
In a House Ways and Means subcommittee yesterday, some members criticized the bill for not designating proceeds from the tax toward specific anti-smoking and health-related programs. Members of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus said they would propose an amendment targeting up to $10 million of the revenue to such programs. Other changes might go further, cutting into the amount of the tax.
While the governor has proposed raising the state's 36-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes by 50 cents in each of the next two years, some legislators have offered possible substitutes that include a single 50-cent increase or a 50-cent increase split over two years.
Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a co-sponsor of the $1 tax increase, has said she is confident the increase will pass the Ways and Means Committee, which she chairs, but said she wants a bill acceptable to the full House. The Montgomery Democrat expressed skepticism a smaller increase would be sufficient to deter teens from smoking -- the stated purpose of the bill.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said some are concerned a steep increase would push smokers -- teens and others -- over state borders to buy cigarettes.
Taylor, an Allegany County Democrat, said that with the proper adjustments, the prospects remain strong that some form of tobacco tax will pass muster in the House.
"I think it's going to be very controversial," he said. "But I'm hoping to see something pass, even if it is not the full dollar."
Pub Date: 3/17/99