With a Democratic administration set to take office in Annapolis, health care advocates are making a renewed push for a $1-per-pack tobacco tax increase that they say would enable the state to expand coverage to 62,000 uninsured Marylanders.
Nine of 11 new state senators are partnering with nonprofit groups, Comptroller-elect Peter Franchot and Attorney General-elect Douglas F. Gansler to lobby for approval of the tax increase, which could raise $200 million the first year out, supporters say.
"Where there's a will, there's a way, and I'm here to tell you there are nine new senators, at least, who have that will," Sen.-elect Michael Lenett, a Montgomery County Democrat, said during a Baltimore kick-off event for the "Healthy Maryland Initiative."
The latest effort comes in the wake of Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley's win. His predecessor, Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., did not back a tobacco tax increase - and the General Assembly did not pass one during his tenure. Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening approved the last increase in 2002, bringing the state's per-pack tax to $1.
Vincent DeMarco, president of a group called the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, said he believes O'Malley could be more persuadable than Ehrlich. And though a similar proposal failed to get out of committee during the 2006 session, DeMarco said new members of the General Assembly - many of whom signed a campaign pledge promising to support a tobacco tax increase - could make the difference this year in lobbying the governor as well as legislative leaders.
"It's hard to think of a better health policy," DeMarco said during the press event at the Maryland State Medical Society headquarters. "It's going to happen in 2007."
But an O'Malley spokesman said that while the governor-elect supports tobacco-prevention and other programs outlined in the Healthy Maryland Initiative, he does not favor a cigarette tax increase.
"We're not inclined to support it at this time," spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said. "The governor-elect is primarily focused on building a professional and competent state government."
A variety of interest groups support the tobacco-tax proposal, from the AARP to the Maryland Nurses Association to the Service Employees International Union.
Maryland ranks 21st in the country for its $1 per-pack tax, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. New Jersey leads the states with a $2.58 per pack rate. Missouri ranks 50th with a 17 cent tax.
DeMarco said additional tax revenue generated by the increase would be used to expand Medicaid eligibility. A portion would also be dedicated to fully funding the state's tobacco use prevention and cessation program and drug treatment programs.
Del. Peter A. Hammen, chairman of the House Health and Government Operations Committee, said he would be inclined to back a cigarette tax like the one DeMarco's coalition is proposing if the money "truly provides greater access to health care services in the state of Maryland."
"A lot of folks in the state favor increasing access to affordable, quality health care, and we're limited in terms of how to pay for it," Hammen said. "And certainly the cigarette tax makes a lot of sense."