- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Maryland’s tobacco tax $1 a pack to pay for better health care for the poor, but the proposal has little possibility of passing in the Senate.

A bill coming up for a House vote this week would raise an estimated $190 million next fiscal year to pay for much of a Medicaid expansion that would nearly triple how much adults can earn and still qualify for state assistance with health care.

The doubling of the state tobacco tax from $1 to $2 starting in July would help an estimated 750,000 to 800,000 Marylanders with no health insurance.

Right now, single adults are eligible for Medicaid only if they earn less than half of federal poverty standards. The bill would boost the eligibility to 116 percent of poverty guidelines. Children would be eligible if their parents make up to four times the poverty guidelines.

Many Republicans plan to oppose the proposal, and the Senate has yet to consider a similar plan.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Southern Maryland Democrat, said yesterday that the state cannot afford proposals like the health plan “until we get out of this fiscal hell that we’re currently facing.”

Others have raised issue with taking the money from tobacco, considered a declining revenue source because as fewer people smoke, the taxes raised from tobacco sales fall.

“I think that is fundamentally unsound fiscal policy,” said Delegate Christopher B. Shank, Western Maryland Republican. “I don’t think it is a good policy move to pay for something with a revenue source that is not going to grow as fast as the program it’s paying for.”

A preliminary debate on the health care issue is expected on the House floor as soon as today.

Education review

A measure allowing circuit courts to review Maryland Higher Education Commission decisions on duplicative programs at state universities was approved yesterday by the state Senate.

The measure, which sparked a spirited and topsy-turvy debate last week, passed on a 27-19 vote.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Joan Conway, Baltimore Democrat, was prompted to address a commission vote in 2005 that endorsed a joint master’s of business administration program at Towson University and the University of Baltimore over the objections of nearby Morgan State University.

Morgan State, a historically black college, said the Towson program duplicated its MBA program and would lead to further segregation in Baltimore-area universities. Morgan State has had the MBA program for more than 30 years.

Maryland signed an agreement with the federal Office for Civil Rights in 2000 requiring it to work toward upgrading historically black colleges and to reduce de facto segregation by encouraging more white students to attend them.

Decisions about duplicative courses made by the education commission currently are not subject to judicial review.

Last year, lawmakers passed a bill that would have enabled institutions of higher learning to appeal commission decisions to a circuit court, but the measure was vetoed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

A cleaner Bay

The Senate gave preliminary approval yesterday to a bill designed to help clean the Chesapeake Bay by requiring the use of low-phosphorus dishwashing detergent.

The legislation has been amended to postpone the measure from going into effect until July 2009 and to exempt commercial dishwashing machines for now.

Phosphorous gets into the Bay through sewers and other direct discharges, contributing to poor water quality.

The bill would cut the amount of phosphorus allowed in detergent to half a percent.

Phosphates were banned in 1989 from laundry detergents in many states. There has been more resistance to banning them from dishwasher detergent because of arguments that phosphate-free alternatives don’t clean as well.

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