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Tobacco tax passes House

March 26, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - Despite opposition from five of Washington County's six delegates, the Maryland House voted Friday to add $1 to the cost of a pack of cigarettes.

It remains to be seen if the "no" votes will hurt the county's efforts to get a University of Maryland campus since Gov. Parris Glendening has pledged the extra tobacco tax revenues to such higher education projects.

The tax increase passed the House by a 74-61 margin and is headed for the Senate, where it's expected to face tough opposition. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. is from Calvert County, home to many of the state's 1,200 tobacco farms.

Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington, was the lone delegation member to vote in favor of the proposal, which would increase the tax by 50 cents this year and 50 cents next year. That would bring the total state tax to $1.36 per pack.

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"I think we need to do this. I think I'm going to help save lives," said Hecht, a former smoker. Putting a higher price on tobacco will keep young people from getting addicted, she said.

The rest of the delegation believes that smokers will simply drive across state lines to fuel their habit, especially in Washington County, which is bordered by Pennsylvania and West Virginia. It could have a devastating effect on county businesses that sell cigarettes, they said.

"I'm very disappointed. We did everything we could to kill the bill," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

Opponents argued that the tax was less about the health of young people and more about raising money that isn't needed in fat budget years.

"It was a way for the governor to say, 'If you vote for this tax you will get projects.' I think that's a sad state of affairs," said Del. Louise V. Snodgrass, R-Frederick/Washington.

The proof, they say, came Wednesday, when the House defied attempts to link the tax to aid for tobacco farmers or programs to help people quit smoking.

But Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said the state won't get as much money as it expects.

"They're relying on the money. I just think it's going to backfire because people are not going to buy them in Maryland," he said.

Local delegates who resisted the tax said they don't believe their vote will make a difference in making the University System of Maryland Hagerstown Center a reality.

"(Glendening) has sold himself for five years as the education governor, and rightly so. I see him looking at the project based on its merits and I feel it'll be a go," said Delegation Chairman Robert A. McKee, R-Washington.

Donoghue said the funding of the university will be based on many factors, not just whether the tobacco tax increase passes.

"To predict future projects based on this is not the right thing to do. I'm going to make sure the project moves forward," Donoghue said.

But Hecht said local lawmakers are being unrealistic if they want the campus but don't support a way to pay for it.

"We can start the process and get on the list and work our way up. If we get in line without the tax it will be a good 10 years before we're in line to get that campus," she said.

Statewide, the vote was split both along party and regional lines, with Republicans and delegates from Southern Maryland tobacco farming counties in opposition.

Both local senators, Don Munson, R-Washington, and Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, oppose the tax.

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