A health advocacy group is hoping to use this year's election to pressure General Assembly members into passing a "dime a drink" liquor tax increase to help pay for health care for the disabled and poor.
Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative sent out letters Monday to all candidates running for the state Senate or House of Delegates, urging them to sign a pledge supporting the tax. The group said they plan to direct voters to call candidates who don't respond to the pledge. The letter wasn't sent to gubernatorial candidates Gov. Martin O'Malley or his Republican challenger, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Liquor tax proposals have failed in previous sessions, including last year when a 10-cent liquor tax increase never made it out of committee. In 2008, a 5-cent increase also failed to pass. Taxes on wine and beer have not been raised since 1972; they haven't been raised on spirits since 1955.
Tax increases have been a tough sell in the run-up to this November's election, but Vincent DeMarco, head of the health initiative, said he hopes more lawmakers will commit to the measure if they hear from constituents and think it could cost them votes.
"I think people on the fence are going to realize it's in their political interest to sign this, as well as it's good policy," DeMarco said.
DeMarco said the tax could raise $249 million that could be used to provide health care coverage to those with mental health and developmental disabilities, as well as fund drug and alcohol cessation programs. A portion also would go to funding health insurance for poor adults without children, a measure that passed in 2007 but was never implemented because of lack of funding.
DeMarco's group contends that an alcohol tax also would help reduce alcohol consumption. A report by the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health found that 10 cents per drink would result in almost 15,000 fewer cases of alcohol dependence.
The proposal is backed by a coalition of groups, including AARP Maryland, labor union 1199E SEIU Health Care Workers East, the Maryland Nurses Association and National Association of Social Workers.
A spokesman for state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller didn't return calls Monday regarding the tax.
Alexandra Hughes, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Michael E. Busch, said he doesn't sign pledges because he has to take into consideration the views of all members of the House.
She pointed out that funding for the Developmental Disabilities Administration increased in fiscal 2011 to $807 million, up from $789 million the year before, and that other revenue sources pay for these services. Under the coming federal health care reform, adults without children would become eligible for health coverage, she added.
"We believe the current revenue structure would further fund these services so we wouldn't need a tax," Hughes said. "We'll look at it in the context of what revenue looks like next year and how the governor presents the budget."