Tobacco Tax Race Going to Wire
By Saundra Torry and Daniel LeDuc
In dueling TV ads, the bitter combatants take their best shots. In one, an earnest couple, both smokers, decry Maryland's proposed $1-a-pack tax increase on cigarettes as a money grab. In the other, an incredulous man mocks the tobacco industry's positions as "ridiculous." So it goes in the hottest battle being waged this session in Maryland's General Assembly.
No longer a midget flinging itself against Big Tobacco, the anti-smoking movement has grown increasingly sophisticated in Maryland, where it has built a broad network of supporters, flexed its election-year muscles and spent $300,000 on a television and radio campaign in recent weeks. This year, the movement has gained a powerful new ally, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who made the cigarette tax a key part of his budget and is dangling funding for pet projects before wavering lawmakers.
Keeping a low profile, the still-potent tobacco industry has pushed its point of view with about a dozen lobbyists. An industry-backed smokers rights group has mounted the TV ad offensive and organized a postcard campaign against the tax increase. And tobacco has a strong political ally, too, in Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), who opposes the tax and holds sway over several key senators.
With the issue set to come to a head this week in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, the pressure has mounted, particularly on two senators from Prince George's County and one from Anne Arundel, considered the swing votes on the sharply divided committee. If the proposal, already approved by the House of Delegates, survives the Senate, Maryland would have the highest cigarette tax in the nation. But many, including some supporters, believe the final tax could be much smaller.
With about a week left in the session, the debate has evolved into a test of wills between Glendening and Miller. Each brings his own special clout to the climax of three months of intense lobbying.
"It is a long way from over," said Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D-Montgomery), the tax bill's chief sponsor and one of 13 members of the taxation committee. The race for votes, he says, is "neck and neck."
For the past two years, much of the tobacco war has been waged on the national stage -- first, with the failed tobacco measure in Congress and then, the $206 billion settlement between the industry and more than 40 states. But local activists from East Coast to West have been busy, too, pushing anti-smoking issues at home. In November, for instance, California voted to raise tobacco taxes by 50 cents. Just last month, the Montgomery County Council voted to ban smoking in bars and restaurants. Now, tax increases are pending in Nebraska and New Hampshire, said Peter Fisher, of the Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
In some ways, the Maryland debate tracks the national one. Anti-smoking forces have focused on a potent political message, arguing that "every day in Maryland, 60 children become addicted to cigarettes" and that the tax increase will cut teenage smoking. Opponents have played the tax-and-spend card, insisting that price increases will not reduce smoking and are nothing more than a political money grab. But in some major respects, the Maryland anti-smoking forces have charted a new course, guided, in part, by lobbyist Vincent DeMarco.
As the vote nears, it is tough to walk down a hallway in the State House without tripping over the rumpled DeMarco, who has worn the same Winnie-the-Pooh tie "for luck" throughout the session.
DeMarco, schooled on a decade of anti-gun battles in Maryland, set out two years ago to form the Maryland Children's Initiative and target underage smoking. Tired of Big Tobacco's seeming invincibility, DeMarco joined with anti-smoking veterans to woo money and untapped allies and gain political clout. He reached out, for instance, to religious groups, including a civil rights coalition of Baltimore ministers that has helped garner support in the African American community. The Maryland State Teachers Association joined, bringing its huge membership and the savvy of lobbyist Michael Butera.
The new allies networked, winning grants from the likes of Baltimore's Abell Foundation, which gave $5,000 for polling on the tobacco issue in 1997 and more than $150,000 later for basic operations. Recently, the state's medical society and Smoke Free Maryland, a coalition of health care groups, provided money for TV and radio ads, which have been running for three weeks in Baltimore, Prince George's and several other counties, according to Glenn E. Schneider, who is part of the team. The Maryland branch of the American Cancer Society threw in about $6,500 to run phone banks, enlisting coalition members to contact lawmakers.
But perhaps the most crucial innovation was making tobacco an election-year issue -- from the governor's race on down to the legislature -- and publicly pressing candidates to sign pledges to support a hefty tax. DeMarco contends that the issue helped elect four new Democrats to the House from Montgomery County who all voted for the tax.
The pledge was "a real shot in the arm, a way to hold legislators accountable," Fisher said.
And so it has. Last week, for instance, Sen. Jean W. Roesser (R-Montgomery) acknowledged that the $1 tax increase "is not my favorite" measure but that she felt bound by the pledge she signed. "I did give my word and will vote for it," she said.
With all their newfound bravura, the tobacco foes have made a few missteps. DeMarco's relentlessness, for instance, has so alienated some lawmakers that they have issued private orders to their staffs to ban him from their offices.
An ad in an Annapolis newspaper by tax supporters angered one of the lawmakers it was designed to persuade: Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr. (D-Anne Arundel), who signed the pledge but remains an undecided vote on the Senate taxation committee. He believed the ad said he was backing off his promise.
DeGrange said the bill is different from what he pledged to support. Instead of tying the tax money to education and health, the governor has used the tax simply to balance his budget. "I would say the governor isn't living up to the pledges," DeGrange said.
Under the proposal, the tax, now 36 cents a pack, would increase by $1 over two years.
Meanwhile, the bill's opponents have been busy, too. William Pitcher, the industry's lead lobbyist, usually can be spotted outside the Senate office building puffing a cigarette. Pitcher said his job has gotten tougher this session, in the wake of the $206 billion settlement. "A lot of people may take [that deal] as an admission of guilt," Pitcher said. "So you sense some people saying, 'Let's put them out of their misery.' "
If history is any guide, the tobacco forces have deep pockets, though it is unclear how much they are spending now in Maryland. Financial disclosure records show that in previous years the Tobacco Institute, the industry's onetime lobbying arm, paid Pitcher more than $70,000 a year. That group has disbanded, but several tobacco companies have hired Pitcher and other Annapolis regulars.
They also have enlisted allies, such as the Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Distributors Association, whose members operate 900 convenience stores and gas stations. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. is using its sales representatives to mobilize merchants, according to Nicholas Manis, a Reynolds lobbyist in Annapolis. Recently, 17 business owners called taxation committee members to seek their support.
The National Smokers Alliance, which receives funding from major tobacco companies, has produced the TV ads, which have been shown on cable stations in Baltimore City and in Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The group's two ads appear to target the African American community, featuring an African American couple and a single African American father. Michael Hambrick, of the Smokers Alliance, won't say what the group is spending. "Don't know. Don't care," he said.
But in some ways, the battle has shifted "to a level beyond [the] control" of tobacco lobbyists, said Montgomery County's Van Hollen. Once, those lobbyists "would pick people off one by one. Now, the governor is picking people off one by one."
Still, it is too close to call.
Democratic Sens. Gloria G. Lawlah and Ulysses Currie, both of Prince George's, remain undecided.
Lawlah, who signed the pledge last year and is a member of the Senate taxation committee, said in the past that she has not favored tobacco taxes. But she said she has grown more open to them with revelations of what the industry knew about smoking's health effects.
She recently received a stack of preprinted cards from tax opponents, but those aren't on her mind as decision time nears.
The governor has pressed her for support, she said. "He asked me, 'What are you really interested in?' I said, 'Governor, I've always been interested in Rosecroft.' "
Last week, the governor announced plans to provide $10 million to bolster purses for the harness track at Rosecroft and at Maryland's thoroughbred tracks.
But Lawlah also feels tugged in the opposite direction. Sitting in the empty Senate chamber Friday, she looked toward the chair from which Senate President Miller presides.
"Mike Miller is responsible for me being in leadership. I want to see what Mike wants," she said. "He holds the key."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company