Laws including high-proof grain alcohol ban take effect Tuesday

Other changes affect earned income tax credit, estate tax and higher education endowments

June 30, 2014|By Danae King, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland joins at least a dozen other states Tuesday in banning the sale of 190-proof grain alcohol, a measure that lawmakers hope will help to reduce sexual assaults and binge drinking among college students.

The bill is one of more than 200 that go into effect Tuesday; other bills expand the earned income tax credit for low-income residents and exempt more wealthy Marylanders from the estate tax, overhaul Baltimore City liquor board practices and establish incentives to encourage investment in research universities.

The grain alcohol ban, backed by a group of university presidents as a safety measure, comes amid a growing focus on rape and drinking to excess on campus. Del. Charles Barkley, a Montgomery County Democrat, said increased awareness of the risks associated with grain alcohol bolstered support for the bill he sponsored.

"Getting it off the market will maybe reduce problems at the college level," Barkley said, adding that students have used it to get "bombed out of their mind," putting themselves in danger.

Local bars and liquor stores sold off the last of their 190-proof (95 percent) alcohol Monday — if they hadn't sold out already.

Dick's Last Resort, a bar and restaurant on Pratt Street, sells 24 gallons a week of its popular drink Trash Can Punch, which is made with Everclear grain alcohol, Cruzan Rum 151 and Hawaiian Punch. The bar will continue to make the punch, but it won't include the Everclear, said manager Emily Snow.

While Barkley said liquor store owners and workers didn't organize opposition to the bill, and some said they sold the last of their grain alcohol months ago, others said the ban is more about political grandstanding.

Jay Chung, manager of Charles Village Schnapp Shop, said the store only sold a few of its remaining 30 bottles of grain alcohol this weekend and will try to sell the rest back to the distributor. The law is "an annoyance more than anything because now we have to deal with this inventory; if we don't sell it, we really can't do anything with it," he said.

He also called the law "an exercise in futility" and predicts manufacturers will soon come out with slightly lower-proof alcohol, such as 188-proof alcohol, as a way around the law. He said lowering the allowable level to 120-proof might have more of an impact.

While Barkley said 151-proof is still a concern, lawmakers targeted what he called "the worst of the worst" with the ban on 190-proof alcohol.

Maryland residents will also see other changes in law starting Tuesday. The earned income tax credit will increase by 0.5 of a percentage point, the first of several increases until 2018.

More than 250,000 Maryland tax returns claimed earned income credits of several hundred dollars on average in tax year 2010, according to a legislative analysis of the bill.

Another measure cuts the number of families subject to the estate tax, which proponents hope will encourage more millionaires to stay in Maryland. Eventually estates of less than $5 million would be exempt.

The changes in the Baltimore liquor board come after a state audit revealed widespread mismanagement and spotty enforcement. The mayor will now have oversight of the board, and it must be more transparent with records posted online. Other bills allow the board to issue or transfer some beer, wine and liquor licenses in different areas of the city where it couldn't before.

Other laws encourage investment in higher education. The state plans to set up a fund to match donations of $500,000 or more to endow chairs at research institutions in an effort to increase investment in the colleges.

Another bill creates a state income tax credit for donations made to an eligible foundation or trust that supports charitable activities in the community or area that it serves.

The law to gradually raise Maryland's minimum wage to $10.10 an hour also takes effect Tuesday, but employers won't have to start paying the first increase to $8 an hour until January. Subsequent increases take effect annually in July.

Members of the General Assembly had attempted to pass the grain alcohol ban in previous years but were stopped in the House of Delegates. This year, university officials worked to sway delegates.

David Jernigan, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, said grain alcohol is more than twice as potent as a typical shot of liquor.

He said he thinks the bill was approved now — after neighboring states Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania passed it — because in the past seven years young people have started to shift from drinking beer to drinking more distilled spirits.

"We do all sorts of things together to make everyone safer," Jernigan said. "This is the equivalent of a traffic light in alcohol, this is putting a big red light in front of this product, which is so potentially dangerous."

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