By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said yesterday that he will allow a bill to take effect without his signature that classifies flavored malt beverages as beer, resisting late-hour calls for a veto from public health advocates and groups fighting drunken driving.
In a letter to legislative leaders, O'Malley (D) acknowledged that the decision was difficult, saying the absence of his signature signals that the General Assembly should revisit the issue of alcohol regulation in its next session and that he is committed to "a much-needed forward-looking agenda to attack the issue of underage drinking."
The classification of the increasingly popular drinks, dubbed "alcopops" by some, affects the rate at which they are taxed and whether their sale is restricted to liquor stores. Beer is available more broadly in most Maryland counties.
The bill, which passed by large margins in the House of Delegates and Senate, was spurred by an opinion in March by Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) that the beverages should be treated as distilled spirits, an interpretation at odds with current practice in Maryland. Supporters of the legislation said they were merely attempting to preserve the status quo.
Charles Hurley, chief executive of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said last night that he was "very disappointed" in O'Malley. "I would have more respect for the governor if he had signed the bill and accepted responsibility," Hurley said.
O'Malley said he will seek to work with the General Assembly with an eye toward creating a new category of regulation for flavored malt beverages.
"I look forward . . . to working with advocates on both sides to build a broader consensus for regulating these alcoholic beverages," O'Malley said in a statement.
The announcement came on the eve of O'Malley's final scheduled bill-signing ceremony after the 90-day session that ended last month. According to a list released last night, O'Malley will sign almost 150 bills today, including a controversial measure that would allow for-profit entities to provide debt-management counseling.
Other bills scheduled to be signed today would expand senior prescription drug assistance and create an authority to oversee the sale of the financially ailing Prince George's County hospital system.
O'Malley also announced late yesterday his only veto this year of a bill passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature. The bill would have required the state to reimburse Anne Arundel County for costs associated with testing and monitoring well water. O'Malley let become law without his signature a separate bill that allows Anne Arundel to set higher permit fees for drilling a well than is allowed under state law.
O'Malley had been heavily lobbied in recent weeks by supporters and opponents of the flavored malt beverages bill.
He was scheduled to sign the bill April 24 but pulled it from the list that morning after a meeting with opponents, including Hurley. O'Malley said at the time that he wanted "a little more time to think about it."
In interviews with reporters as recently as Tuesday, O'Malley did little to tip his hand on the issue. Aides said there was considerable debate within the governor's office about whether to veto the bill.
Advocates who urged a veto argued that the drinks are marketed to underage drinks, particularly young girls, and should not be sold outside liquor stores.
In an interview yesterday, Gansler said O'Malley's action signaled that he understands the issues involved. Gansler said he is hopeful that O'Malley and the legislature will create a separate regulatory category for flavored malt beverages.
"It may turn out to produce the right result in the end," Gansler said. "The ultimate goal is to keep those alcopops out of the reach of young people, and young girls in particular."
Under current Maryland law, beer is taxed at 9 cents per gallon, wine at 40 cents and distilled spirits at $1.50.
In his letter to lawmakers, O'Malley attributed passage of the bill largely "to the threat of a potential 16-fold increase in the tax rate that is currently being assessed on flavored malt beverages."
O'Malley mentioned other bills he has supported that seek to curb underage drinking. One such bill he plans to sign today would increase the maximum penalty for adults who give alcohol to minors.