Md. Senate Debates Under Threat of Filibuster
By Daniel LeDuc
The Maryland Senate began prolonged debate on doubling the tobacco tax yesterday, and it threatened to evolve into a full-fledged filibuster that could disrupt the pace of legislation in the General Assembly's waning days.
Already at risk is Gov. Parris N. Glendening's initiative to provide gay men and lesbians protection from housing and employment discrimination, as well as legislation that would ban the late-term procedure opponents call "partial birth" abortion. If the Senate remains stalled on the tobacco tax, those proposals and many others could die when the General Assembly adjourns at midnight Monday evening.
The Senate is considering whether to double the tobacco tax to 72 cents. Proponents say it would help reduce teen smoking by making cigarettes more expensive, but opponents insist it's only a money grab.
"This bill is trying to prevent kids from starting smoking," said its sponsor, Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D-Montgomery). "Today's youth is tomorrow's market" for cigarette makers.
Glendening (D) had hoped for a $1 increase, and the House of Delegates approved that proposal. However, the Senate balked, and on Wednesday, its budget committee voted to increase the tax by only 36 cents. Still, that was too much for some senators, especially those who are angry that Glendening has tied many lawmakers' favorite projects to revenue from a tobacco tax increase as pressure for its passage.
They have threatened a filibuster to delay a vote on the tax. The extended debate last night did not turn into full-fledged stalling by tax opponents, but they said that a filibuster would likely come today and that they had the votes necessary to keep it up into the weekend. Efforts last night to limit debate to four or five hours failed.
The governor has said he wants the increase to raise the cost of smoking, discouraging young people from taking up the habit and encouraging others to quit. Senators who agree with him yesterday pleaded with their colleagues to set aside their anger over what many saw as the governor's heavy-handedness in making lawmakers' pet projects contingent on passage of the tax.
"If we can delay or stop a lifetime habit that is bad for you, we will save lives," said Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore), who nonetheless faulted Glendening for linking spending to the tax.
Another tax proponent, Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Baltimore) said: "Parris Glendening did not invent politics. He did not invent vote-trading."
McFadden said it was legitimate for the governor to apply pressure to get votes on his proposals and that the tax should be an easy sell to people: "You don't like the tax, don't smoke. It's as easy as that."
But many senators have complained that Glendening did not tie any smoking and health programs to the tax and said they were furious at his tactics.
"We're talking about revenues and expenditures. We're not talking about health policy," said Sen. Robert R. Neall (R-Anne Arundel), who vowed to help lead a filibuster to delay a vote on the tax increase. "If we [kill the tax] . . . we will be sending a message to [Glendening] that we won't be pushed around, rented, leased or bought."
Some Democrats agreed. "Show me a nickel from this tax that's for the kids," said Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell (D-Baltimore County). "This isn't about taxing the tobacco industry. This is taxing our people."
Senators began debating the tobacco tax at 1 p.m. yesterday. After 90 minutes, they broke for two hours for committee meetings before resuming debate at 4:30 and continuing until 9:09 p.m.
Except for legislation already in conference committee with the House, little else can be passed by the Senate while the tax is pending. The delay could thwart many other legislative proposals.
Some legislation did continue yesterday. Glendening signed into law a bill that will deregulate the electric utility industry. Soon Maryland consumers will be able to select their electricity provider in much the same way they can pick a long-distance telephone company.
But other legislation not as far along in the process could be in danger. Glendening's effort to expand gay rights remains stuck in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. The committee considered but failed to take a final vote on the proposal yesterday. But even if that bill passes, a filibuster may prevent the full Senate from considering the matter.
Likewise, a prohibition on certain abortions is in danger. The Senate has passed the proposal. Yesterday, the House gave it preliminary approval but made some minor changes. Should the House give final approval to the bill, the ban on the late-term procedure would have to be considered again by the Senate because of the House's changes. A filibuster on the tobacco tax could mean that the Senate won't have time to consider the proposal.
"There's stuff that doesn't get passed every year," Neall said when asked about the effects of a delay. "I think we're going to be here for a long time. I think we're going to be jeopardizing some great legislation."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company