Md. Senate Agrees to Raise Tobacco Tax
By Daniel LeDuc and Robert E. Pierre
Maryland senators compromised last night and voted to raise the state cigarette tax by 30 cents a pack, ending a filibuster that had threatened hundreds of pieces of legislation, frayed lawmakers' nerves and challenged the political determination of Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who had championed a tax increase.
The new tax is six cents less than proponents had hoped for and significantly less than the $1 proposed by Glendening in January and already passed by the House. House leaders indicated that they expected to agree to the lower tax, which would raise the total levy on a pack of cigarettes to 66 cents, the 11th-highest in the nation.
Still, tax advocates said they were satisfied, especially because Glendening pledged to spend $21 million on a hard-hitting advertising campaign and other efforts that tax sponsor Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D-Montgomery) said "will go a long way for programs to prevent kids from getting hooked on cigarettes." The governor also promised to provide money to tobacco farmers to grow new crops.
Glendening spent all of yesterday afternoon negotiating with senators, calling them to his office and meeting in offices adjacent to the Senate floor, where the filibuster was going on. "It's not everything we wanted, but it will make a difference," he said after the agreement was reached.
The tobacco tax had evolved into the most bitter political battle of the General Assembly session, a test for Glendening and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) and a high-stakes game for Republicans, whose filibuster could have derailed the rest of the year's legislative business.
"Not everyone is happy with the final agreement, but it was important that the Democratic Party prevail," Miller said. "We can't allow 15 Republicans to totally stop government." Once the tax was approved at 8:45 p.m., the Senate worked into the night to complete the bills that had piled up during the delay, which began Thursday.
For their part, Republicans pronounced themselves pleased with their efforts. They reduced the tax, which they had denounced as only a revenue raiser, and they forced a commitment to spend money on smoking cessation, which they had criticized Glendening for not doing earlier. The tax increase is a cornerstone of Glendening's agenda, his main public health initiative and the foundation of many of his fiscal proposals for the year. The $90 million to be raised by the tax means that Glendening's $150 million supplemental budget -- filled with many legislators' pet projects as leverage for their support for the tax -- will have to be cut and some of those programs lost.
The tax hike also was one-third of what remained of the governor's most controversial proposals -- including a gay rights bill and a measure to increase union rights for state workers. Those bills are pending in the legislature.
Glendening, arguably at the peak of his political power -- fresh off a commanding reelection victory and three years before he becomes a lame duck -- has been accused by some even in his own party of a narrow focus that pushes Democrats too far to the left, enhancing the party's tax-and-spend image.
"These are big and controversial issues to lay out at one time," Glendening acknowledged. But, he added, "these are issues I ran on."
Many lawmakers in both parties, however, say that they've been surprised by Glendening's agenda and especially by his strategy of tying the tax increase to his budget proposals and legislators' favorite projects. That's what caused the breakdown in the Senate as opponents stalled.
Glendening made no apologies for his tactics: "Was it hardball? Yes. People expect that . . . they expect me to be effective."
The $21 million annually for smoking prevention will actually come not from the tax but from the $4.2 billion Maryland will get as part of the nationwide settlement with cigarette makers to reimburse states for Medicaid costs associated with smoking.
In addition, Glendening promised to spend 5 percent of the settlement on developing alternatives for tobacco farmers, which Southern Maryland Democrats, who had aligned with Republicans, had sought in order to support ending the filibuster.
Much of what Glendening has advanced this year are old-fashioned liberal initiatives that play well with traditional Democratic constituencies. The governor won election in 1994 by less than 6,000 votes, leaving him little political capital on which to draw for his first term. Nonetheless, he advanced controversial controls over suburban sprawl, widespread smoking restrictions in public places, tougher gun control and vast amounts of money for school construction.
With a 10-point reelection victory in November, Glendening pushed an even more ambitious agenda this year. Last month, the General Assembly approved his HOPE scholarship program. The program, when fully in place in four years, will provide a $3,000 scholarship for any high school student who maintains at least a "B" average to attend college in Maryland. The governor also has pledged to provide more money for school construction -- $1 billion over the next four years.
None of those proposals, however, has been met with the same resistance as what remained unfinished on Glendening's agenda on the eve of the session's conclusion: the tobacco tax, the ban on discrimination against gays and lesbians, and expanded union rights for state workers.
The union proposal has been vastly scaled back, and the gay rights proposal is stuck in committee.
"He's got too much on his plate," said Sen. Leo E. Green (D-Prince George's). "His issues are too emotional for the current makeup of the General Assembly."
Other Democrats are unhappy that Glendening seemed to have little interest in perhaps the most far-reaching legislation considered this year: deregulation of the electrical utility industry. That legislation, which Glendening signed into law last week, affects the electric bill of nearly every Maryland consumer.
Glendening was unapologetic.
"It was not my issue," he said. Weighing in on deregulation, which was clearly a priority of legislative leaders, "would have absorbed a lot of capital from things" on his agenda -- capital he had to spend yesterday.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company