Governor paid for tobacco tax OK

Assembly: Glendening's anti-smoking measure survived a filibuster, but the win was tempered by compromises and the uncertain fallout from a tax-weary public.

April 12, 1999|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

When April sweetens the air in Annapolis, legislators usually turn eager to endorse the proposals of Maryland's powerful governors.

But this year, the power of the state's chief executive was very nearly blunted by a team of Republicans and independent Democrats who wondered how they could explain a $150 million tax increase to tax-weary constituents.

In the end, they gave Gov. Parris N. Glendening his tobacco tax -- though it was cut by almost three-fourths to 30 cents a pack. And they took some control over spending $4 billion from the state's settlement with the tobacco industry for medical costs related to smoking.

The governor got his tax increase -- and some children might be saved from tobacco addiction. Some legislators wonder, though, if the public will not simply see another Democrat-inspired tax increase.

"If we continue down the road of ultra-liberal Democratic politics, we'll end up with two Marylands," House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said: "an inside-the-Beltways Maryland and the rest of the state, which is increasingly Republican."

Taylor and state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller opposed the tax increase but like many other legislators, ended up having to support it.

The governor insisted his proposal was really not a tax. When he proposed a $1 increase at the start of the legislative session 90 days ago, he called it a health measure, an effort to price young people out of the cigarette market.

Studies support his assertion, but almost no one in the Assembly thought the idea gave them much political cover, including some who voted for the increase. They knew opponents would call them on it.

"When it comes to taxing and spending," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican, "Glendening is truly an extremist -- even in his own party."

Still, the Democrat-controlled Senate came close to killing the bill over the weekend. After a three-day filibuster, they gave in to the governor's wishes Saturday but not before stripping 70 cents from the $1 proposal and exacting significant concessions.

Glendening's victory took virtually all the power conferred upon him by the state Constitution. He was up against a force almost as reliable as the calming zephyrs of spring. The historic power of tobacco has seldom been bested by anyone, including governors.

In the process, the governor's promises of pork in the form of cultural centers and the like were called "shameful" by Senate President Miller and inept by the Budget and Taxation Committee chairperson, Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman of Baltimore, both of the governor's party.

But supporters called Glendening courageous, observing that few governors have proposed, much less accomplished, a blow against the assembled might of lobbyists for the tobacco manufacturers and others for whom the sale and use of cigarettes is big business.

Glendening tried to lay the blame on the cigarette lobby, asserting that it was manipulating the Senate like so many marionettes. He tried earlier to suggest that his 1998 election mandate demanded passage of the bill. Pass the $1 tax increase, he commanded, because the voters have endorsed it.

Senate foes were not listening. And Miller seemed to despair of stopping the extended debate. A furious, almost trembling Glendening displayed the depth of his anger at a news conference Friday.

As he spoke, his effort to extend civil rights protections to gays and lesbians was gutted and headed for outright defeat. "If these bills go down," he said, "there will be hell to pay."

He rejected anything less than the 36-cent increase then pending on the Senate floor: "I will not accept a compromise."

But senators worried about the hell to be paid if they passed a tax increase when the state enjoys an ample budget surplus. Miller openly expressed his anti-tax sympathies during the filibuster, suggesting that Glendening's proposal made Flanagan's tax-and- spend charge a perfect fit for Maryland Democrats.

Many legislators expect to be faced with a proposal to raise taxes again next year to pay for roads and other transportation needs. And if there is an economic downturn, one of the usual sources of revenue -- the politically easy way to target "sin" tax on tobacco -- will already have been tapped.

Republicans saw unexpected opportunity in all of this. Still suffering from last year's elections, which reduced their strength in the House, they had power for a moment.

"What's coming together," said Del. Robert R. Neall, and Anne Arundel Republican and a leader of the filibuster, "is a coalition that will make the rest of Glendening's term a lot more difficult."

The governor had promised $150 million worth of public works projects to win votes for his tax increase, but still he was short of the votes needed to end the filibuster.

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