Plan to avoid bottle tax hits snag

Video poker tax would not hit jackpot

May 20, 2010|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

A City Council plan to plug a hole in Baltimore's budget gap without a contentious tax on bottled beverages hit a snag Thursday when finance officials said a key piece of the plan would bring in significantly less revenue than projected.

An excise tax on video poker machines would generate about $2.2 million, rather than the nearly $5 million predicted by the measure's sponsor, Councilman Robert W. Curran, finance officials said at a hearing. The city's Finance Department counted only the machines currently registered, although Curran believes that many more machines are kept off the books.

Curran and Councilman James B. Kraft, chairman of the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, locked horns at the hearing over a part of the bill that would pay "bounty hunters" who report illegal gambling machines half the fees the city recovers. Kraft said the proposal was poorly planned because the bill names no supervising agency and does not explain how bounty hunters would report machines or receive payment.

But Curran said he would not vote for his bill at Monday's council meeting if the bounty hunter provision is removed, calling it a crucial component that could result in the city uncovering many more machines.

The council has been holding hearings on a $49 million package of taxes drafted by Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake to avoid cuts to fire, police and other essential services as the city grapples with a $121 million shortfall in its $2.2 billion budget.

The video poker tax accounted for a significant chunk of an alternate plan introduced Wednesday by eight council members that they said would have generated $43 million without a four-cent tax on bottled beverages proposed by Rawlings-Blake.

But Council Vice President Edward Reisinger, who as floor leader is responsible for pushing the mayor's agenda through the council, said the council must find $49 million in revenue to protect jobs and services.

"Some of my colleagues are more concerned about the big companies, the beverage distributors and the liquor stores," he said, referring to the well-organized campaign against the bottle tax. "They're not looking at the big picture of how these cuts would hit residents."

The lower revenue projection for the video poker bill would leave the council hunting for nearly $10 million in revenue to protect jobs and services that would be paid for by Rawlings-Blake's revenue package. They have drafted several measures, such as a tax on billboards and oversize trucks, which could bring in a total of $2.5 million, according to the Finance Department.

On Monday, Kraft plans to introduce another potentially lucrative measure — a $4 telecommunications tax on cable service that he estimates could garner up to $10 million. Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young plans to propose a registration fee for vacant homes that could bring in additional revenue.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

http://twitter.com/juliemore

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