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Md. alcohol tax likely to increase, finally

By Editorial,

FOUR DECADES is a long time to wait, but at last Marylanders can be hopeful that the state’s politicians are prepared to stand up to the alcohol lobby.

For the first time since 1972, lawmakers in Annapolis seem poised to raise the tax on alcohol specifically, which is so low that Maryland might as well change its official nickname from the Free State to the Cheap Drunk State. If the House of Delegates can follow the Senate’s lead, Maryland might finally take a step in the direction of discouraging underage drinking and alcohol abuse while raising badly needed revenue for schools, services for people with severe disabilities, and other programs.

The bill passed by the state Senate is modest; it would add just a dime in sales tax to the cost of a $10 bottle of wine or six-pack of beer this year, and 30 cents by 2014. Under the Senate plan, which — to appease the liquor lobby — would be phased in over three years, the state would eventually gain revenue estimated at $85 million to $100 million annually, less than half the amount advocates had wished for.

We hope the House follows suit. A wide-ranging study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University has shown that higher liquor taxes translate directly into public health benefits, as drinkers, particularly teenage ones, moderate their intake. What’s more, the Senate plan would do nothing more than match the surtax on alcohol charged by liquor stores in the neighboring District, which don’t seem to struggle much to sell their wares.

Under the Senate plan, more than $20 million of the new revenue would be directed to a handful of school systems this year, including two big and struggling ones — Prince George’s County and Baltimore City — whose funding from the state is being cut because of declining enrollments. Over the following two years, most of the new revenue would go to the state’s general fund, though a growing portion would be directed to programs for people with disabilities such as Down Syndrome and severe autism; these programs have fared poorly in tight state budgets in recent years.

The symbolism of the legislation, if it survives and is signed into law by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), is nearly as important as the health benefits and new state money. For years, the alcohol lobby, which donates lavishly to state political campaigns, has gone unchallenged in Annapolis and has managed to squash not just higher taxes but also legislation that would crack down on drunken driving and other abuses. Now, in the face of an effective grass-roots campaign and irrefutable public health research, lawmakers are, at long last, standing up for their constituents.

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