Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes has decided to seek higher "sin taxes" on alcohol and cigarettes, increase the state property tax and transfer $29 million from the transportation fund to offset a projected $133 million state budget deficit.
According to State House sources, plans drafted this week by Hughes' budget office call for tax increases of two-to-three cents a pack on cigarettes (currently taxed at 13 cents a pack); two-to-three cents a gallon on beer (now taxed at nine cents a gallon) and wine (now taxed at 40 cents a gallon); a larger amount, according to some sources about 25 cents a gallon, on hard liquor (now taxed at $1.50 a gallon), and three cents on the property-tax rate.
All of the luxury or "sin tax" increases require legislative approval, as does shifting money from the transportation fund to the general fund. State officials believe money can be moved from the transportation fund without affecting needed bridge and road repairs because of the new five-cents-a-gallon federal gasoline tax that will be shared with the states.
Hughes will submit his fiscal 1984 budget to the legislature next Friday, one day after he is sworn in for his second four-year term. Legislative leaders said that while passing tax increases were never popular, they expected the overwhelmingly Democratic General Assembly would go along with most of Hughes' proposals. The biggest fight may come over shifting transportation funds, sources said.
The property tax increase, which does not require legislative approval, would raise about $15 million and would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $13.50 extra a year. The cigarette increase would net $11 million to $15 million. Because of the uncertainty of the amount, it could not be immediately determined how much money the higher tax on alcoholic beverages would raise.
Meanwhile, legislators settled in to prepare to tackle these and other issues. In the Maryland Senate members received a stern lecture today from their new president, Melvin A. Steinberg, on the subject of decorum.
Sounding like a schoolteacher explaining to his students why they would have to be kept late, Steinberg talked at length about topics such as not talking on the telephone on the Senate floor, not smoking, eating or drinking in the chamber, wearing appropriate dress and keeping staff members off the floor.
"It is an honor and a privilege to sit on this floor," Steinberg said. "The floor is not a public place. If you are going to be here in any capacity you will conduct yourself according to the rules and with decorum."
Moments after Steinberg finished his lecture, a staff member working for Majority Leader Clarence W. Blount waltzed onto the floor and sat in the chair next to her boss. Immediately, many of the senators began pointing and waving at Blount, who became majority leader as part of the deal cut by Steinberg that enabled him to wrest the presidency from Sen. James Clark Jr. (D-Howard).
Steinberg, seeing the commotion, said, "Senator . . . " Blount interrupted to say, "Sorry, Mr. President, we're still in the shakedown stage."
On opening day Wednesday, when Blount rose to move for adjournment, many senators, following tradition, began heading for the doors. They were ordered back to their seats by Steinberg who declared, "the Senate is not adjourned until I bang my gavel."
Even Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Prince George's), Steinberg's top lieutenant, admitted that might have been going a bit too far. "It was infantile, he treated everyone like children," Miller said. "But Mickey has said all along this is what he wants and he made his point. He wants us to be different from the House, where you can do whatever you want on the floor--smoke, drink and who knows what else."
Hearing about the Senate's new decorum, Del. Gerard F. Devlin (D-Prince George's) said, "Maybe they'll appoint a committee on color coordination over there. Of course, if they ever banned plaid, a lot of those guys would be in trouble."
Other senators, however, said they agreed with Steinberg. "I think it's fine," said Sen. Stewart Bainum Jr. (D-Montgomery), a freshman and former delegate. "Someone has to be the boss, and he's it."
Sen. Howard A. Denis (R-Montgomery) also agreed, likening the Senate last session to "a Persian bazaar." Denis further suggested that former members, who are granted floor privileges, be banned from the floor if they are also lobbyists, as lobbyists are not allowed on the floor. Steinberg said he would consider each of those cases individually for the moment.
Del. John W. Wolfgang was officially named by Hughes to the state parole commmission today. The timing could not have been better for Wolfgang, 56.
Because he was sworn in for a fourth term on Wednesday, his annual pension will be $900 higher as it will be based on this Assembly's salary of $21,000 rather than last year's salary of $18,000. Wolfgang's seat will probably be filled by Gary Alexander, chairman of the county's Democratic Central Committee, who ran the Democrat's campaign in Prince George's last year.