Md. Senate to Consider a Cigarette Tax
By Daniel LeDuc
A key Senate committee voted yesterday to double the tax on a pack of cigarettes in Maryland to 72 cents. The increase was far short of what Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) had hoped for but was enough to anger some senators, who said they would launch a filibuster against the increase as early as today.
A filibuster threatens a host of legislation because the General Assembly is set to adjourn at midnight Monday, leaving senators little time to accomplish much if they are delayed by extended debate. During a filibuster, senators continue to talk on a bill without bringing it to a vote creating a logjam that holds up other legislation.
"Everything is at risk, including the budget," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), who had opposed the tax increase but who said he would work to quickly end any filibuster.
The vote for the 36-cent increase came after votes for a $1 and a 50-cent increase failed. Though clearly much less than advocates had hoped for, they still said the increase would go a long way to helping reduce smoking.
"A 36-cent increase will save lives," said Vincent DeMarco, who led a coalition of health and community groups lobbying for the tax increase. But, he added, "we're disappointed they didn't adopt a higher tax."
The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee vote was the first act in a drama unfolding over the last several days of the General Assembly session. It had been unclear whether any tobacco tax increase would be approved by the committee, especially given Miller's opposition. The House of Delegates has approved a tax increase of $1.
Throughout the session, Glendening had put pressure on lawmakers to increase the current 36-cent cigarette tax by $1 50 cents each year over the next two years. The governor and health advocates said that the increase would reduce teen smoking by making cigarettes more expensive. Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D-Montgomery), who sponsored the 36-cent tax increase, said a $1 increase would eventually save 25,000 lives because fewer young people would begin smoking.
Glendening kept up pressure by first balancing his state budget proposal with revenue from the proposed tax increase, which would have generated $150 million the first year. When legislative budget cutters slashed the governor's proposal enough to make a tax increase unnecessary, Glendening offered a supplemental budget this week, contingent upon the increase.
That budget proposal was laced with the pet projects of legislators and was the governor's attempt to garner votes for the tax increase by tying the lawmakers' favorite proposals to it.
"The issue is not so much teen smoking as it is pork barrel projects," Miller said. "That's what's created the animosity."
In a letter to anti-tobacco activists yesterday, Glendening attempted to assuage such criticism by saying he would create new programs to reduce smoking to accompany passage of a tax.
The governor said in an interview that he was disappointed senators didn't vote for a higher tax, but he declared that "a 100 percent increase in the current tax is very significant."
Asked if his strategy to closely tie the tax increase to his budget proposals and not health programs had backfired, Glendening said no. "Is this bill not coming out?" he said.
Still, many senators including those who supported the tax increase saw Glendening's strategy as heavy-handed.
"I have been sick to my stomach because a lot of what's been happening is the kind of vote trading I find distasteful," said the committee chairman, Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat. "The governor, for all his rhetoric, has not done a good job of putting his money where his mouth is."
Others were angrier about Glendening's strategy.
"This isn't about kids smoking anymore," said Sen. Robert R. Neall (R-Anne Arundel). "It's about money and who gets it.
After seeing in Glendening's letter to the anti-tobacco activists that the governor was aware of the plan to reduce the tax hike to 36 cents, Neall was livid. Glendening's letter had been drafted before the senate committee had voted; it was a clear sign the governor knew beforehand that a deal had been struck. "I'm going to talk for 96 hours straight," Neall said of his plans to filibuster.
There are 15 GOP senators who by tradition do not vote to end filibusters. They could be joined by several Democrats from tobacco-growing Southern Maryland, including Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles). That means at least 17 of the 47 senators will be in no hurry to end the filibuster. A vote of 32 senators is required to end the debate, a vote known as cloture.
"Thirty-six cents might have to be reduced to get cloture," Miller said. "We'll all have to suck it up and make concessions for the good of the state."
Staff writer Amy Argetsinger contributed to this report.
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