Senate backs tax for schools

Levy on cigarettes to help cover boost in education outlay

34 cents more per pack

Move seen as step toward satisfying Thornton proposals

April 03, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Senate voted yesterday to increase the cigarette tax by 34 cents a pack and earmark the money for schools, a critical step toward passing a long-term, $1.3 billion package of new education spending.

The Senate could take a final vote today on the education-spending legislation recommended by the Thornton Commission. Opponents are threatening to filibuster, saying it is fiscally irresponsible to approve more spending without knowing where all of the money will come from.

Even if the measure wins Senate approval, it faces stiff opposition in the House of Delegates. The House leadership says it, too, is concerned about the long-term costs and insists it will pass no more than a two-year plan, funded mostly by the cigarette tax.

Yesterday's 32-15 Senate vote to raise Maryland's cigarette tax to $1 per pack would provide $78.5 million of the $90 million in increased education aid for next year.

"It would be irresponsible to put on the floor a major increase in education spending without having identified at least a potential source of funding," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

But Senate Republicans argued that the tobacco tax represents just the first of a series of tax increases that would be required to pay for the full Thornton plan.

"This doesn't even come close, not even close, to covering the cost of this bill," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican and the Senate minority leader. "This is a tax bill. You pass this, you're increasing taxes. There is no other way to fund this."

Other senators questioned how much money would go to their counties. "The formula which I see here is so unfair," said Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat and chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. Cecil County would receive $900,000 in extra aid next year, which Baker called "a few crumbs."

Senators amended the bill to remove a provision that would have allowed county governments to override voter-imposed tax caps to allocate more money for schools.

If opponents of the legislation launch a filibuster, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller vowed to keep the Senate on the floor through the weekend, if necessary, to ensure that some type of education spending package gets approved before the 90-day legislative session ends Monday.

The sharp disagreement between the two chambers puts in jeopardy the recommendations of the Thornton Commission, which worked for two years on a proposal to change Maryland's system of school funding and direct more money toward less wealthy jurisdictions.

The Thornton recommendations call for state spending on public schools to increase by annual increments over five years until the yearly increase reaches $1.1 billion.

But Senate committees amended the plan, extending the phase-in period by a year and adding $200 million to its cost.

About 40 percent of the $200 million would go to Montgomery County, a change made to win support of legislators there. That is about $10 million more than the amount sought by county officials in December when they first raised objections to their county's share of the Thornton plan.

"I think that the adjustments to Montgomery County ... would make it much easier for the House to pass this," Miller said.

But the House leadership supports no more than a two-year spending package. For next year, they back the same $90 million version as the Senate, with an additional $1 million each for Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. The House would continue that education spending for the second year without increases.

"The Senate version is unaffordable and, in my judgment, a hoax to the citizens of this state because it is a funding proposal without a source of revenue," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.