Maryland legislators entered this year's General Assembly session floating an increase in the alcohol tax primarily as a way to funnel money into programs to help the developmentally disabled, the mentally ill, substance abusers and other groups.
But when the Democrat-controlled assembly passed a bill last week increasing the sales tax on alcohol from 6 percent to 9 percent, less than 20 percent of the tax increase's $87 million in projected first-year revenue was slated to go to such causes. Nearly all the remaining revenue will go to schools and school construction, leading some opponents to accuse legislators of pulling a bait-and-switch on those who needed the bill most.
"The advocates wanted this bill, and they wanted it for the disabled and the mentally ill," Delegate Susan W. Krebs, Carroll Republican, said last week on the House floor. "In my opinion, this money is going to buy votes instead of going to where it was meant to be."
Health advocates have led the call for several years to raise the alcohol tax, and they were fixtures again in Annapolis this session. They lobbied politicians and testified at numerous hearings, often accompanied by Maryland residents with disabilities who spoke about the need for public health funding.
One of the session's earliest tax proposals was a so-called "dime-a-drink" tax, which would have raised the excise tax on beer, wine and liquor by about 700 percent.
The bill was near and dear to many health advocates and was named after the late Lorraine M. Sheehan, a former delegate and longtime advocate for the disabled.
The proposal would have generated an estimated extra $214.5 million in first-year revenue. Nearly 90 percent of that money would have gone to Medicaid, mental health care, addiction treatment, support for the developmentally disabled, prevention of tobacco use and training for health care personnel. Legislators considered the measure too drastic and dismissed it.
In its first year, the tax increase that was approved will provide $15 million for the developmentally disabled. The rest will go primarily toward improving schools in larger, heavily Democratic counties such as Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's.
Democrats have denied that the school funding was designed to win votes in the legislature and contended that they are merely addressing two major needs: funding for schools and aid for the disabled.
"Some of the facilities are in such bad condition," said Delegate Melvin L. Stukes, Baltimore Democrat, referring to the city's schools. "There's no doubt that there is an overwhelming need."
Health advocates seem largely pleased with the bill.
"It's a great public health victory in Maryland, so we are all thrilled about it," said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative and part of a coalition that lobbied heavily for the tax increase.
"People understand that an alcohol tax isn't just an ordinary tax," he said. "It's a lifesaving measure."
Mr. DeMarco said he would like more funding for health programs in the future and that the tax increase is more than justified by its benefits. Supporters have predicted that by making alcohol more expensive, a subsequent reduction in sales could lead to fewer alcohol-related crimes, accidents and illnesses, saving the state untold millions of dollars.
Health advocates have expressed optimism over the tax-increase legislation having no earmarked revenue after its first year, meaning another $87 million likely will be up for grabs next year. Many say they hope all of the money will go to public health, but realize that might not be the case.
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