- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 3, 2002

ANNAPOLIS A bipartisan coalition of Maryland senators failed yesterday to block a plan that would raise the state cigarette tax by 34 cents per pack to pay for a massive increase in school spending.
Opponents argued that the proposal is an irresponsible scheme that will commit lawmakers to a bigger and broader tax increase after the November election.
The plan's lead proponent Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee contends the tax increase will raise about $103 million through next year, then about $70 million annually.
"I would suggest that this doesn't even come close to covering the cost of [the school-spending increases]," said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, Eastern Shore Republican, adding that the bill would have the largest fiscal impact of any in state history.
The proposal is slated for a final vote today with an attempt to filibuster, but Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said he does not expect these efforts to keep the measure from receiving a final vote by tomorrow.
Mr. Stoltzfus said that the deficit is expected to be at least $760 million next year and to get worse thereafter without new spending called for in the bill.
The spending plan would increase aid to local public schools by $73 million next year and continue escalating annually with a $1.3 billion increase projected in 2008.
"I don't know how you're going to get the money" after the first two years, said Mrs. Hoffman. But she said the legislature has "always backed into" funding increases, not knowing how they would cover the cost of some policy changes.
The bill was based on a statewide panel's recommendations on how to ensure equal educational opportunities for students in the state's poorer jurisdictions.
But the bill was revised Friday by two Senate committees to send an extra $80 million annually to Montgomery County, one of the state's wealthiest jurisdictions, with an eye to winning the votes of that county's lawmakers.
It also mandates statewide all-day kindergarten and, for poor families, preschool for 4-year-olds.
The Senate gave preliminary approval to the committee revisions yesterday on a 31-15 vote.
But House leaders were balking at the Senate proposal and looking to counter it while sounding warnings about "fiscal irresponsibility."
The Senate suspended debate in the afternoon to wait for an amendment that would increase state spending for private-school textbooks to $7 million by 2008.
That proposal failed although Mr. Miller, Prince George's Democrat, said he expected the extra private-school funding to win three more votes for the bill and ensure that he could avoid a filibuster.
Conservatives scored one victory yesterday when Sen. Sandra Schrader, Howard/Prince George's Republican, won a vote that stopped the state from giving county and city councils or commissioners power to override tax caps that voters approved by referendum.
Sen. Alex X. Mooney, Frederick/Washington Republican, said raising the tobacco tax to a full $1 per pack will cause the state to lose sales- and gas-tax revenues as Maryland residents, most of whom live within easy driving distance of states with lower tobacco taxes, shop across the border. Maryland's tax is already among the highest in the nation, and neighboring states' levies are all lower including Virginia's, which at 2.5 cents per pack is the country's lowest.


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