The latest strike for cigarette tax

The Political Game

Ads: Health advocacy groups are preparing for another cigarette tax battle with television ads that name Republican senators who opposed this year's bill.

May 04, 1999|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

WHEN THE GREAT legislative smoking war ended dramatically one month ago with a 30-cents-a-pack tax increase, generals on both sides conceded a certain battle fatigue, a weariness sufficient to keep them off the field for a year.

Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., a Montgomery Democrat who leads the Senate tax proponents, said he would probably do some regrouping next year. Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who used the power of pork in his failed effort to win votes for a $1-a-pack tax increase proposal, might be inclined to rest a year as well.

But the war will go on.

Within a week, the first rounds will be fired in the smoking war of 2000 -- with attack ads naming those who opposed any increase this year in the tax on cigarettes.

A coalition of health advocacy groups won the 30-cent-per-package increase in the tax this year, but they would have done better if a few more Republicans had been with them. So now, believing that Marylanders support the tax increase, they will go on television with a campaign against their Republican opponents. The ads are likely to characterize opponents of the $1-a-pack increase as willing tools of the tobacco industry.

Glendening and Smoke Free Maryland had hoped to make cigarettes too expensive for young people. Every boost in price saves thousands of kids from illness and death, they said.

Republicans scoffed.

More of the same, they said, from the big spending, social engineering Democrats. They teamed with a few rural Democrats in the state Senate to stop the tax in its tracks -- and then to cut it to 30 cents. The bill passed when, reluctantly, a few Democrats caved to save a bit of the governor's bill.

Republicans said the health claims were exaggerated, untested or bogus. The real idea, they trumpeted, was to raise money for special projects. Tax and spend by any other name is still tax and spend, they said.

Now, tobacco tax proponents threaten, Marylanders will learn the names of those state senators who were "doing the bidding" of the tobacco manufacturers, conspiring with the cigarette industry against Maryland children.

According to Vincent DeMarco, a lobbyist for Smoke Free Maryland and the Maryland Children's Initiative, the ads will lay the groundwork for another tax increase effort next year.

DeMarco says Smoke Free Maryland will challenge Republicans to accept what he called a "revenue neutral" approach to the tobacco tax issue. He said he would volunteer to help with an effort to keep the focus on the health issue, dedicating the new taxes collected to programs that could not be labeled "pork" or "payoff."

Curran offers perspective on Littleton tragedy

In the wake of the tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. says law enforcement officials, parents and educators need to focus on the implications of unsupervised children.

At a summit meeting of attorneys general from around the country, Curran was to present the findings of a survey completed in Maryland that shows that as many as 350,000 children are left to their own devices after school every day, a result, he said, of the fact that most parents are working.

"Statistics show that when children are unsupervised, juvenile crime skyrockets," he said. "Unsupervised children are getting into trouble and if we don't do something about it, we'll have our own tragedies to deal with."

The summit under way in Jackson, Miss., has become a forum for considering the Littleton tragedy and other incidents of school violence.

Curran says his examination of programs for young people offers some hope for addressing the problems of unsupervised kids effectively. An after-school program run by police in Baltimore, he said, has helped reduce juvenile crime in neighborhoods by as much as 33 percent.

"Every school should have at least one after-school program," he said. "There are just too many unhealthy influences for children -- from dangerous Internet sites to drug-infested neighborhoods.

"We must provide at least one healthy alternative," he said.

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