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Battle begins over campus, cigarettes

March 01, 1999

Say this about Sen. Alex Mooney, at least he's honest. Explaining why he prefers cheap cigarettes to a new University of Maryland campus in Washington County he said if he agrees to a new tobacco tax "we'll lose our elections."

There's a telling state of affairs. If you support higher learning in Washington County over lung cancer you stand to get tossed out of office.

The Greater Hagerstown Committee members visited lawmakers last week to register their distress.

Greater Hagerstown gently tried to put forth the radical notion that some things - like an educational hub that would produce a smarter work force and better jobs for the people of our county - are worth a compromise.

They may as well have tried to explain ecofeminist systems theory to the crowd at a National Hockey League game.

Here's the deal: Washington County wants a four-year branch university. Gov. Parris Glendening wants a dollar-a-pack cigarette tax. Hence, the governor says "If you want your campus, you better vote for a tax that will help pay for it."

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This is reasonable horse-trading politics in its oldest form.

Yet some of the younger members of the delegation in particular took great umbrage at what they called strong-arm tactics on the part of the governor.

All I can say is if they think Glendening is playing unfair, it's a darn good thing they weren't around during the reign of King Crab.

Former Gov. Schaefer would have had these kids wetting their bill binders. There's no way Schaefer would have let any part of the state have a university campus for a mere buck on a pack of smokes.

I'm all for principle, and I respect our lawmakers' willingness to take a stand. But couldn't they stand on something that doesn't cause cancer, heart disease, shortness of breath, lowered immune systems, emphysema, high blood pressure and diminished sex drive?

They would really torpedo a college campus over cigarettes? How come legislators can get away with this kind of idiocy, but I can't. If I were to write a column arguing that a multimillion-dollar University of Maryland-Hagerstown branch just wasn't worth the cost if it meant raising the cigarette tax, people would say I was smoking something a lot heavier than Winstons.

(It could be worse, I guess. In West Virginia - I am not kidding - a County Commissioner said last week that Berkeley County would be happy to host the West Virginia Wine Festival so long as they didn't serve any alcoholic beverages. Coming soon: The Martinsburg chili cookoff (beans strictly prohibited).

Maryland lawmakers fear a cigarette tax will cost store owners business. No, here's what costs store owners business: an uneducated populace and a correspondingly low-end job selection that doesn't pay people enough to afford a luxury any greater than two packs a day.

If we raise the average wage in this county just $1,000 a year, it won't matter how many people travel to the Sheetz in Greencastle for their carton of Jacks, Spandex shoelaces and a supersized package of Huggies.

Strangely, an official with Greater Hagerstown wasn't much more thrilled with the governor's plan than the lawmakers. He said he "didn't like the linkage" between the cigarette tax and the construction of the school.

Let's see, where have we heard this before? We want the service, but we don't want to pay for it. What a waste of a good politician. I've always said some of the Greater Hagerstown folks should run for office. This proves it. They would fit right in.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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