Senate conservatives fight tobacco tax rise with a filibuster

Opponents call proposal to boost levy 36 cents misguided

April 09, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron and Michael Dresser | Thomas W. Waldron and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

With time ticking away on the General Assembly's annual 90-day session, a band of conservative senators launched a high-stakes filibuster in the Maryland Senate yesterday in an attempt to derail Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposed tobacco tax increase.

Proposing amendment after amendment, the senators were able to keep the Senate working on the governor's bill until after 9 p.m. before breaking for the night. The measure would double the state's 36 cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes and impose the first state levy on cigars and smokeless tobacco.

The governor and his allies contend the tax increase is needed to deter young people from taking up smoking and to encourage those who do to quit. But opponents insist it is a misguided effort to raise additional revenue at a time when the state has a hefty budget surplus.

Votes last evening showed that there probably is enough support to pass the bill -- if debate can be stopped. But they also showed how difficult it will be to round up the 32 votes needed to end the filibuster. At night's end, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he could count no more than 28 such votes.

Most of the dozens of amendments opponents prepared had little chance of approval, but were intended to run down the clock on the session. The Assembly is scheduled to end its session Monday night but has yet to pass a budget, the one bill it must pass if it is to avoid an extended session.

The Senate adopted an amendment tying the tobacco tax to the enactment of the General Assembly's bill setting spending priorities for the money Maryland will receive from the national tobacco settlement.

Lawmakers took the step after hearing that the governor might veto the spending bill so that he could set those priorities himself. The amendment, proposed by Sen. Robert R. Neall, an Anne Arundel Republican, passed with the blessing of the Senate's Democratic leaders.

At least for yesterday, the filibuster did not disrupt the legislature, as Miller allowed the Senate to conduct all of its other business before taking up the tobacco bill.

But some lawmakers said they were concerned that the filibuster, if it continues much longer, could threaten other legislation. Among the bills stacked up behind the tobacco tax and budget measures are the governor's proposals to ensure collective bargaining rights for state employees and to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The debate began on a somewhat unexpected note as a key supporter of the tobacco tax, Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, sharply criticized Glendening for submitting budget proposals filled with coveted spending projects tied to passage of the tax.

"I will not defend a $160 million supplemental budget that was built on a tobacco tax," said Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate committee that passed the tax increase.

Her complaint was echoed by opponents of the bill. "We're not going to be pushed around, rented, leased or bought," said Neall. He warned that if senators don't break the link between the tax increase and the budget, "we're going to have a very difficult time over the next four or five days."

Some proponents of the tax increase defended the governor's strategy, saying the proposal wouldn't have gotten as far as it has without being linked to popular projects.

"The end justifies the means in this particular case," said Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Glendening proposed increasing the state tobacco tax by a full dollar a pack -- 50 cents this July and another 50 cents in July 2000. The House of Delegates approved the dollar increase, but the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee this week endorsed the less ambitious increase of 36 cents.

Pub Date: 4/09/99

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