Lawmakers approve tuition break for illegal immigrants, new sales tax on alcohol

In final hours of 2011 session General Assembly passes historic, divisive measures

April 12, 2011|By Julie Bykowicz and Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland's Democratic General Assembly passed a pair of historic — and divisive — measures in the final hours of the 2011 legislative session Monday night, increasing the tax on alcohol for the first time in more than a generation and making Maryland the 11th state to extend in-state college tuition breaks to illegal immigrants.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, has said he approves of both plans; his first round of bill signings is set for Tuesday.

Beginning July 1, the sales tax for beer, wine and spirits would jump from 6 percent to 9 percent, raising an estimated $85 million per year. Lawmakers chose to dedicate the funds to school construction and aid to Baltimore and Prince George's County, as well as to programs for the developmentally disabled.

The in-state tuition proposal would enable undocumented students who have attended Maryland high schools for at least three years, and whose families pay state taxes, to pay in-state tuition rates at community college. After completing 60 credit hours — the equivalent of two years of full-time study — a student could transfer to a four-year state college for the in-state rate.

Before the traditional midnight confetti drop, the two controversial ideas consumed much of the final day of the session. Republicans and conservative Democrats fought the legislation with amendments and speeches.

Working for more than 12 hours Monday, lawmakers ushered through dozens of bills, capping a session in which they closed a deficit projected at roughly $1.5 billion in next year's state operating budget and engaged in a prolonged — and ultimately dead-end — debate on whether to legalize gay marriage.

Democrats from conservative areas of the state cited fiscal concerns for their votes against both in-state tuition and the alcohol tax.

"People's expectation was that we come here and get our finances in order and work to create jobs," said Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., a member of the House budget committee. The St. Mary's County Democrat voted against both measures.

But supporters said the bills would prove wise economic policies for Maryland.

"It was never about immigration," said Sen. Victor Ramirez, a Prince George's Democrat who sponsored the in-state tuition bill. "It's about what to do with the intellect of our children. Do we invest in them, or kick them to the side? The people win with this bill because we'll have a more educated work force."

Advocates of the alcohol tax increase argued that the money it is to generate for school construction would create jobs.

Last-minute moves also sent bills on a medical marijuana study, prescription drug monitoring, incentives for the development of a slots casino at Western Maryland's Rocky Gap resort and a provision to allow outdoor dining with dogs, among many others, to the governor's desk.

O'Malley's centerpiece economic development plan, Invest Maryland, gained passage Monday — a better fate than many of his other proposals, including an offshore wind farm and a septic system ban, both of which were consigned to summer studies.

Republicans came to the State House on Monday ready for a fight on both the alcohol tax and the in-state tuition bill.

House Republicans labored to derail the 50 percent increase to the sales tax on alcohol by talking for two hours in the afternoon and another 90 minutes at night.

Minority caucus members took advantage of a rule that enables each lawmaker two minutes of floor time to explain his or her vote.

Some who opposed the tax complained loudly about the way the revenues were set to be distributed. Baltimore and the large counties get tens of millions. The smaller counties split a couple of million dollars.

Bohanan agreed with the concern and explained the method of distribution this way: "It gives you the votes you need to pass the bill."

Later, as Democratic leaders ended discussion on how spend the new revenue, House Republicans shouted "point of order!" again and again.

"Once again the voice of the minority has been stifled," said Del. Don H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican.

In the Senate, Republicans put up comparatively little resistance, offering amendments on how the money would be spent, but declining to debate the increase itself.

Many lawmakers noted that O'Malley had made taxes a campaign issue last fall, painting Republican opponent Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as a big spender because he raised fees during his term as governor.

"I never took the pledge that I would never sign any taxes or any fees," O'Malley said.

He defended the allocation of the tax revenues, which under a House-passed plan would flow in the first year largely to the biggest and most Democratic-leaning counties.

Baltimore City and Prince George's and Montgomery counties receive $21 million. Eight Eastern Shore counties would split $1.25 million. The Senate was still debating late Monday night whether to accept that division.

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