- The Washington Times - Monday, March 18, 2002

ANNAPOLIS When anti-smoking groups began their push for a cigarette tax increase in January, chances for success seemed a long shot at best.
The idea was not popular with some key legislative leaders, most notably Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening said he would stand by a pledge he made in 1999, when the tax was increased 30 cents a pack, not to seek another increase during his second term.
Backers of the bill also had to contend with the natural reluctance of legislators to support a tax increase in an election year, even one seemingly as palatable to voters as a higher levy on cigarettes.
Much has changed, however, since anti-smoking legislators and health groups gathered in the offices of the state medical society to present their proposal to raise the tax by 70 cents to $1.36 a pack.
As the state's fiscal condition deteriorated over the ensuing weeks, support for a tax increase began to build in the House and Senate.
The thought of raising $100 million to $200 million in additional revenue depending on the size of the increase is an appealing prospect for legislators looking for more money for education, health and welfare programs and environmental protection.
Support has reached the point where the biggest hurdle for anti-smoking groups may not be getting the votes needed to pass the tax bill, but working out an accord on the size of an increase and how the money would be spent.
Deciding where the money would go could be difficult because of a split between House and Senate leaders over a proposed $1.1 billion increase in funding for public schools over the next five years.
Senate leaders want to begin implementing the Thornton Commission recommendations this year; House leaders want to wait until next year.
The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee is expected to vote soon on a bill sponsored by Sen. Christopher Van Hollen, Montgomery Democrat, to boost the tax by 70 cents a pack.
During a committee work session last week, several members said more funding for schools is the top priority.
"I personally will support a cigarette tax only if a portion goes to fund the Thornton Commission," said Sen. Barbara Hoffman, Baltimore Democrat and committee chairman.
Sen. Robert Neall, Anne Arundel Democrat, said he was "not crazy about asking the public for more money in any form," but could support an increase if the revenues were applied to fulfilling the legislature's constitutional duty to provide quality education for all students.
But key House leaders want to wait at least a year to pass legislation that would commit the state to big increases in education spending for the next five years.
House Speaker Casper Taylor, Allegany Democrat, has proposed setting aside $40 million for schools this year. He calls it "bridge funding" to tide over school systems until next year, after a task force takes an overall look at the state's revenues.
"I don't think it's in the cards to start trying to fund Thornton," he said.
The problem with the Thornton Commission involves more than just whether it should be implemented this year or next. There are deep divisions among legislators on the funding formula, which would provide the most help to poorer school systems.
Montgomery County legislators are particularly upset. They see the Thornton Commission plan as another example of the way their county is treated unfairly when it comes to handing out state aid.
Geography is a problem, albeit a lesser one, for supporters of the cigarette tax. Most Marylanders live within an easy drive of another state, and all surrounding states have lower taxes than Maryland.
Sen. Lowell Stoltzfus, Senate Republican leader from Somerset County, said a tax increase would encourage smokers to drive across the border, where their shopping lists would not be limited to cigarettes.
That would hurt Maryland retailers, especially convenience stores that would lose sales of milk, bread and soft drinks in addition to cigarettes. Supporters of the tax bills say cross-border sales are not a significant problem.
They will continue pushing for a 70-cent increase that would give Maryland the third-highest tax in the nation behind New York at $1.50 a pack and state of Washington at $1.425 a pack.
Supporters argue the legislature should increase the tax because it would reduce smoking, is favored by most voters and would bring in revenues needed to get Maryland through the current recession.


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