- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

ANNAPOLIS Anti-smoking activists are hoping to use the state's fiscal problems and a poll showing broad support for higher tobacco taxes to persuade lawmakers to raise cigarettes taxes by 70 cents a pack.

Representatives of Smoke Free Maryland, a coalition of anti-smoking groups, said yesterday that a poll they commissioned showed almost 80 percent of 500 likely voters supported the 70-cent tax increase.

Daniel McGoldrick, research director for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, said voters across the country regularly support tax increases as a way to discourage young people from starting to smoke.

The level of support in Maryland is "higher than virtually any state we've polled in."

Sen. Christopher Van Hollen, Montgomery Democrat, acknowledged there will be strong opposition to a tax increase of any kind and said he expects a tough fight getting the bill through the Senate.

"This poll gives us a big boost toward passing this tax this year," Mr. Van Hollen said.

Delegate Barbara Frush, Prince George's Democrat and the bill's chief sponsor in the House of Delegates, said the House voted two years ago to increase the tax by $1 before the Senate cut it back to a 30-cent increase. A majority of the 141 delegates are ready to complete what they started in 1999, Mrs. Frush said.

Supporters will have to overcome opposition from some top legislative leaders including House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. who are opposed to any tax increase this year.

"It's not going to go anywhere," said Mr. Taylor, Allegany Democrat. "I don't think there's any sentiment that I can hear to raise taxes."

Supporters of the tax say it would raise as much as $200 million to help the state close a $1 billion revenue gap and balance next year's budget.

But Mr. Miller said the legislature should concentrate on reducing spending, not raising taxes.

"[Voters] perceive the budget to be bloated," said Mr. Miller, Prince George's Democrat. "What the state should be doing now is showing fiscal restraint, holding back on spending, looking for fat in the budget."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat who led the fight for the tax increase in 1999, made a commitment then that he would not propose another increase during his final two years in office. But he has said if the legislature votes to raise the tax, he will gladly sign the bill.

Supporters hope the state's financial problems will help build support for raising the tax from 66 cents to $1.36 cents per pack.

Maryland is one of 22 states where legislatures are considering bills to increase the tax on cigarettes. The New York Legislature has already approved a 39-cent-a-pack increase, raising that state's tax on April 1 to $1.50 a pack, the highest in the nation.

"We've never seen as many states looking at increasing cigarette taxes as a way to make up for fiscal deficits as we're seeing right now," said Janis Borton of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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