"Let 'er rip," snorted Willie Rush, the rotund Baltimore County delegate. And with that the House Economic Matters Committee, which oversees the state liquor industry, yesterday approved a measure that would protect the interests of Maryland's home-grown distillers and wholesalers.
The bill Rush's committee approved would raise by fivefold the fees out-of-state liquor companies pay to compete in the state and at the same time reduce by half the license fee for the 800 in-state liquor salesmen.
"This only hits the importers who are importing [liquor] into the state," said William J. Burkhead, an Anne Arundel County delegate who was the bill's original sponsor. ". . . The person [whose fees] I'm reducing is the poor old salesman out on the street, wearing out his shoes to sell a few cases of whiskey."
Citing the estimated $350,000 he thought the bill would produce for the state treasury, he added, "Any time you bring revenue into the state of Maryland, it's a good idea."
But, objected Del. Nathaniel Exum: "If you tax these people they're just going to pass the cost on . . . It's the guy whose buying the beer who's going to have to pay the higher cost."
Patricia Sher, sitting next to Exum, chimed in, asking, "What possible justification is there for doing something to bring more money into the state when we've got money coming out of our ears because of the [$340 million] surplus?"
Exasperated, Burkhead rejoined, "If you don't like it, vote against it so the papers can print that you voted against bringing revenue into the state of Maryland.
When comittee chairman Frederick Rummage tallied up the ayes and nays, 10 members approved Burkhead's bill, six opposed it, and six either abstained or were absent when the vote was taken.
The short history of House Bill 1071, one of more than 20 introduced this year to make changes in the thick volume of Maryland regulations governing the liquor industry, provides a glimpse of the deferential attitude that the Economics Matters Committee takes toward the interests of the state's distillers.
In 1979, more than 1,800 state licenses and permits were handed out, for a fee, to individuals and firms who make, buy, store or ship beer, wine and liquor in Maryland. Of this number, about 500 were issued to firms with out-of-state addresses.
It is mostly these firms that are affected by the Burkhead bill, which raises from $50 to $250 the fees paid for licenses to import liquor and store it in Maryland.
"The idea is to charge the people who are bringing products into this state for sale what we consider to be a fair price for bringing goods in here to compete," explained Del. Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Democrat who owns a tavern in his hometown of Cumberland.
Taylor, the committee vice-chairman and one of those voting to approve the bill, added that the license fees for Maryland salesmen involved have remained at $50 since 1959.
"The in-state people are our people," he added. "They contribute heavily to the Maryland economy. The out-of-state people are just coming in to make a profit."
The bill as originally proposed by Burkhead, however, would have quintupled the licensing fees not only for importation, transportation and storage of liquor, it also would have raised the license fees for in-state salesmen by a like amount.
When the officials who run the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division in the state comptroller's office noticed this, they called Burkhead and objected. On Feb. 25, the day before the bill came up for a hearing, Burkhead ordered several amendments drafted.
The key change cut the in-state solicitor's permit, not just to the $50 level -- which has been the standard fee for 21 years -- but back to $25. In fact an earlier draft of the amendment had cut it back to $10, but the comptroller's office complained that this fee would not cover the administrative costs of licensing, so that version was scrapped.
"This is nothing but a favor for the big liquor companies. Most of these people [the salesmen] work for them," complained one delegate after the vote. p
Other amendments added the names of Taylor and Rush as cosponsors of the measure and moved up its effective date so that the increased license fees can be collected this year.
Throughout the brief debate in the committee today, Burkhead argued that the bill would bring in $350,000 in additional state revenue. That however, was no longer the case. After the amendments were approved, and the salesmen permit fees lowered, the net revenue the state would garner from the bill dropped to $170,000.
"The comptroller wants to throw some crumbs to the big distillers," said the delegate.
But Burkhead and division officials strongly disputed that. "This was my idea," Burkhead told the committee. Rick Burkitt, Burkhead's aide, said later that the delegate had been reading the regulations and decided that the license fees for out-of-state importers were too low.
Eugene O. Fisher, assistant chief of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division, said, "Nobody consulted this office" before the bill was drafted. "All at once it just popped up in the legislature."
In fact, few of the bills concerning alcoholic beverages bear the name of Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein. However, Fisher's boss, Joseph P. Oates, did testify in favor of the bill, objecting only to the increase in the salesmen's license fees.
In fact, Oates was the only person to testify on the bill.
Asked what good the bill did for the state, Fisher thought a moment and said, "I'm not sure," then picked up a telephone to consult with his boss. After hanging up, he cited the length of time the fee has remained unchanged and the fact that no speakers had appeared in opposition.
The bill now goes to the House of Delegates floor for approval.