The Maryland Senate voted Wednesday to approve an increase in the state's alcohol sales tax, despite concern by some legislators that it could hurt small businesses and disproportionately fund some counties while neglecting others.
The Senate voted 27-19 in favor of the amendment, which would increase the state tax on retail alcohol sales from 6 percent to 9 percent, with a 1 percentage point increase in each of the next three years.
Opponents argued that the hardest-hit Marylanders will be merchants and the poor. They also say the Democratic-sponsored amendment funnels nearly three-quarters of the tax's first-year revenue to Baltimore City and Prince George's County - Democratic enclaves and the districts facing this year's largest cuts in state education funding.
"That distribution could have gone to help those very needy citizens throughout the state," said Sen. David R. Brinkley, Frederick Republican. "It should not be going to two political jurisdictions."
The tax is expected to generate $29 million in additional revenue this year, of which $12 million would go to Baltimore and $9 million to Prince George's. Allegany and Garrett counties would each receive less than $1 million, with $5 million going to programs that help the developmentally disabled.
Other counties that are not slated for significant education cuts will not receive funds. While the mandatory education funding ends after the first year, money for the disabled will increase to $10 million in fiscal 2013 and $15 million in fiscal 2014.
The tax is expected to generate $58 million and $85 million in final two years, respectively.
"It will go toward public health and toward the stability of those most vulnerable in our population," said Sen. Verna L. Jones-Rodwell, Baltimore Democrat.
Sen. E.J. Pipkin, Cecil Republican, suggested the additional money going to Baltimore and Prince George's was to round up House votes for the tax.
"It's a statewide tax, but the benefits are only focused on a couple of jurisdictions," he said. "This is part of the deal that's struck. They're appealing to some of the largest voting blocs to get them to go along with a tax."
Democratic lawmakers in both jurisdictions have fought hard this Assembly session to restore funds that Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley wants to cut from their school systems.
Delegate Jill Carter, Baltimore Democrat, skipped a crucial March 1 vote on same-sex marriage, withholding her support until she was assured party leaders were serious about restoring the money.
The tax proposal now moves to the House Rules and Executive Nominations Committee, which will vote whether to send it to the House Ways and Means Committee, which would then vote whether to send it to the House floor.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said House passage is no slam dunk, but he denied the funding amendment was a calculated move to ensure votes from Baltimore and Prince George's delegates.
"It's not done out of [political] necessity," he said. "It's done out of need." Mr. Miller also said that state education-funding formulas often penalize the districts for their declining populations.
"This is an attempt by the General Assembly to alleviate some of their concerns and alleviate some of their problems." he said.
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