On 'alcopops' bill, O'Malley's ideals succumb to politics

June 01, 2008|By C. Fraser Smith

Maybe it's just a different slant on the same old problem, but governing responsibly - and staying in office - seems ever more challenging.

Take tax increases and "alcopops," for example. These not-so-obviously connected matters illustrate the challenge of addressing important public issues without damaging one's re-election prospects.

In these matters, one thing leads to another - and no good deed goes unpunished.

Gov. Martin O'Malley moved last fall to increase various state taxes. He thought he had to if Maryland was to deal with a $1.5 billion budget deficit and to go on providing services the state needs and that people want. He thought it was the responsible thing for a governor to do.

As a result, his popularity plummeted in public opinion polls.

And so, several months later, he backed away from what would have been recorded by opponents as yet another tax increase. To govern, Mr. O'Malley says, is to choose. In this case - though he was obviously conflicted - he chose his popularity over the best interests of Marylanders.

The issue arose after Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler ruled that certain sweet-flavored alcoholic beverages should be taxed as spirits, not beer.

Critics charged that alcopops are marketed to young people, not yet drinkers, who don't much like the taste of beer or whiskey. The industry and its lobbyists threw up choruses of protest: Why, the thought of a "gateway drink" had never crossed their minds.

In the midst of the alcopop controversy, Del. Heather R. Mizeur of Montgomery County became a competitor in the legislature's 2008 quote-of-the year contest:

"These drinks get dressed up in a six-pack," she said, "but if we had truth in advertising they would come with a shot glass."

Members of the General Assembly had approved a measure to overturn Mr. Gansler's ruling, sparing the industry a tax increase. The governor demurred, studied, hefted the veto pen - and then demurred again.

He allowed the bill to become law without his signature, saying he wanted the Assembly to take another run at the issue. It was a transparent gubernatorial maneuver tantamount to caving in to the alcoholic beverage industry and to those who reacted so negatively to tax increases. Those who worked to kill the bill as harmful to children came away empty-handed.

Had the governor signed the bill, taxes on these beverages would have gone from 9 cents a gallon to $1.50 a gallon. (The alluring-to-teenagers drinks are taxed now as beer - not as distilled spirits.) Attorney General Gansler and others suggested alcopops might be put in taxing category of their own, above beer but below distilled spirits.

The prospect of higher taxes was no doubt deeply shocking to the alcohol industry, which has escaped tax increases since 1955 in the case of liquor and, for beer and wine, since 1972. It should be pointed out that the proposed tax increases might have seemed risky to the governor and to the legislators because they would be passed on to the consumers.

Tax increases? That's one issue, but there's also the matter of public health. Cigarette taxes were increased over the last few years as a way to reduce teen smoking.

No one in public office is suggesting that Maryland raise taxes on these drinks as a public health measure - though that might be a good idea. But the industry should, at the very least, pay its way. To have been exempt from tax increases for decades is a gaudy display of power fortified by campaign contributions. Alcohol interests gave Maryland lawmakers, state and local, $2.8 million since 1998. Another $2 million was spent on lobbyists from 2002 to 2007.

So add money to the list of factors making it difficult to govern in concert with your own values and the best interests of your state.

Voters, too, have a responsibility in matters of this sort. Alcohol interests may have influence, but the ultimate leverage is wielded at the polls - including the public opinion polls that lead leaders to choose higher ratings over the lives of young people.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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