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Tobacco tax advances

March 24, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - With time running out to get planning money this year for a proposed University of Maryland campus in Hagerstown, Washington County officials have been unable to schedule a meeting with Gov. Parris Glendening.

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Meanwhile, the House of Delegates gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a $1-per-pack cigarette tax increase that the governor wants to earmark for such higher education projects.

Five of the six Washington County delegates oppose Glendening's tax increase, which is up for a final vote in the House this week.

Campus supporters are asking Glendening for $800,000 in planning money for the proposed $12 million campus off Interstate 70 at Downsville Pike.

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So far, Delegation Chairman Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, said he's been unable to schedule a face-to-face meeting with Glendening.

When Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington, talked to Glendening about the campus two weeks ago, he told her that paying for it might largely depend on whether the Maryland General Assembly approves the tobacco tax increase.

Gov. Parris Glendening proposed increasing the tax on cigarettes 50 cents a pack this year and another 50 cents next year, in order to discourage teen smoking.

Hecht is the only member of the delegation who supports the tax, aimed at reducing teen smoking.

Opponents are concerned that it will hurt county businesses who sell cigarettes, especially in an area so close to Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

In an intense debate on the House floor Wednesday, lawmakers from other parts of the state tried to change the tax bill.

Those efforts, most of which were supported by a majority of the county delegation, were shot down.

One change would have exempted Washington and other counties from the tax increase. The delegation supported the failed change with the exception of Hecht, who did not vote.

Planning money for the University System of Maryland Hagerstown Center is not in Glendening's proposed budget now under consideration by the legislature.

To be funded, Glendening would have to add it to his supplemental budget due out in a matter of days.

A detailed plan for the campus will be ready by the end of next week, said Harley A. Cloud, site manager of the University System of Maryland's Shady Grove Center.

Gregory I. Snook, president of the Washington County Commissioners, said he is still optimistic.

"I think we still have a chance. The governor has always been fair to Washington County. Hopefully he'll see all the good things that will occur with this project," Snook said.

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