Members of the Southern Maryland delegation to the General Assembly have urged the state administration not to impose an 8-cent tax on cigarettes, saying it would seriously hurt an already hard-hit sector of the local economy.
Gov. Harry Hughes is floating the idea of implementing the tax if the federal government goes ahead with plans to drop an 8-cent tax on cigarettes.
Elected officials of Charles, St. Mary's and Calvert counties wrote to Hughes to point out that tobacco sales are down about $40 million this year, because the 1983 harvest was the worst since the Depresssion. The 1984 crop, which will go on sale in several months, is improved.
"Essentially, we told him it would be most inequitable to request the tax. It would penalize one area of the state just when our farmers are struggling to survive," said Del. John Slade (D-St. Mary's).
Maryland stands to generate at least $32 million in revenues if legislators "roll the tax on when the feds roll it off," said Del. Michael Sprague (D-St. Mary's, Charles). Sprague and Slade said cigarettes are the highest-taxed commodity on the market, with about 40 percent of its price representing taxes.
Sprague, who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, said Maryland's economy is "rather fat right now. There is no need for additional revenues, but the [Hughes] administration is looking at this as a favorable tax, an easy tax."
Lou Panos, press secretary to Hughes, said it would be unrealistic not to consider the cigarette tax, "especially if the [Reagan] administration's willingness to sacrifice aid to the states continues."
Panos said Hughes is looking at several options, including earmarking a portion of cigarette revenue to offset expected cuts in nutrition programs and unemployment benefits.
Maryland is embarking on what Panos called a "costly program to inventory all public buildings and schools for asbestos removal," and that money from a cigarette tax should underwrite this effort, he said.
"We are really just floating the idea at this stage," Panos said.
About 10 million pounds of 1984 tobacco sits unsold in barns throughout southern Maryland, Slade said. The price and quality was bad because of the double blows of a partial drought and then too much rain, he said.
Other issues the legislators from the tri-county area plan to make priorities during the upcoming legislative session are transportation, health care cost containment and better relations with the region's main military employers.
"Transportation is always a sore subject down here. With most money going to fund Metrorail -- which our folks rarely get a chance to ride -- road repairs in the three southern counties are often left out in the cold," Simpson said.
Delegates from the three counties say they will meet with military officials at the Patuxent Naval Air Station and the Naval Ordnance Center to work on emerging problems with housing, water and roads that have resulted from an increase in the work forces at those facilities.