Senate panel OKs doubled cigarette tax

Filibuster threatened in full body in last days of session

Major bills are pending

Miller uncertain 36-cent increase can win approval

April 08, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron and Michael Dresser | Thomas W. Waldron and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A Senate committee voted last night to double Maryland's 36 cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes, setting the stage for a showdown in the full Senate that could disrupt the last few days of the legislative session that ends Monday.

The Budget and Taxation Committee voted 7-6 in favor of the 36-cent tax increase after rejecting Gov. Parris N. Glendening's more ambitious proposal for a $1-a-pack boost in the levy.

Although the increase was smaller than he had sought, Glendening won an important vote in a committee that has in past years rejected such tax measures.

But the tobacco tax increase faces an uncertain future in a divided Senate and is likely to spark a filibuster that could threaten other legislation as the General Assembly tries to finish its work for the year.

Most crucially, the Assembly cannot finish work on the state budget for next year until the tobacco tax issue is settled.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the 36-cent increase on cigarettes was the most the Senate could possibly accept -- and even then he wasn't sure it would win approval.

"That number is going to be filibustered," he predicted.

Under Senate rules, it takes 16 senators of 47 to hold the floor and prevent the chamber from taking a vote on a measure.

Such a filibuster might play havoc with several major bills pending, such as the governor's gay-rights initiative and his proposal to grant collective-bargaining rights to state employees.

An extended filibuster would delay votes on other legislation, which would in turn increase pressure on advocates to withdraw the tobacco tax bill to allow the Senate to finish its other work.

Miller, who has consistently opposed the tax increase and plans to vote against it, said he would work to break a filibuster in his role as Senate president.

One key block of votes to sustain a filibuster could come from the Senate's 15 Republicans, who have a strong tradition of voting against cloture, even though a handful might support the bill.

That means that most, if not all, of the Senate's 32 Democrats would likely be needed to stop Senate debate and allow a vote on the bill.

But two of those Democrats, Sens. Thomas M. Middleton and Roy P. Dyson, are opponents of the tax increase from tobacco-growing Southern Maryland and might support a filibuster.

During yesterday's committee vote, critics said the tobacco tax bill was nothing more than an attempt to raise more money for state government, while supporters said it had a life-or-death goal -- stopping people from smoking.

"It's a true addiction. It is a good thing to be taxed," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, the Baltimore Democrat who heads the budget committee and voted for the tax. "I think it's important to listen to the public on this one."

The measure passed by the Senate committee would increase the tax on cigarettes by 36 cents a pack July 1. It would also for the first time impose a 15 percent state tax on cigars and smokeless tobacco. A 36-cent increase would mean a boost in state revenues of about $105 million next year.

The House of Delegates had earlier approved Glendening's $1-a-pack increase, which would give Maryland one of the nation's highest tobacco taxes.

After yesterday's vote, Glendening put a positive spin on the committee's action. He said that while he would have preferred the full dollar, he was pleased that the panel supported a 36-cent increase.

"We recognize that a 100 percent increase is very significant," Glendening said. He added that the administration would work with leaders to end any filibuster.

The measure cleared the Senate panel on the strength of votes from seven Democrats from the Baltimore-Washington corridor: Hoffman; Christopher Van Hollen Jr. and Ida G. Ruben, both of Montgomery County; Gloria G. Lawlah and Ulysses Currie, both of Prince George's; Edward J. Kasemeyer of Howard, and Nathaniel J. McFadden of Baltimore.

Voting with Middleton against the measure were Sens. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican; Robert R. Neall, an Anne Arundel Republican; James E. DeGrange Sr., an Arundel Democrat; Donald F. Munson, a Washington County Republican, and Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery Republican.

Advocates for the tax had hoped for a "yes" vote from DeGrange, who signed a pledge during last year's campaign to support a $1.50-a-pack increase in the levy. But DeGrange said he objected to the bill because it did not allocate proceeds from the tax increase to programs designed to combat smoking.

Neall, one of the Assembly's budget authorities, said he strongly objected to Glendening's making $150 million in state spending contingent on passage of a dollar tax increase.

"This isn't about reducing smoking," said Neall. "This is about money and who gets it."

Middleton also sharply criticized Glendening for casting the tax as a health issue even though he had put little money in his budget to educate young people on the dangers of smoking.

Glendening released a letter during yesterday's voting session pledging a "substantial, aggressive" program to reduce tobacco use in Maryland.

Pub Date: 4/08/99

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