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Delegates say cigarette tax hike won't fly

January 30, 2002

Delegates say cigarette tax hike won't fly



By LAURA ERNDE
laurae@herald-mail.com


Washington County lawmakers oppose a 70-cents-a-pack cigarette tax increase and say the legislature is unlikely to pass such a controversial proposal this year.

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The Maryland General Assembly isn't up for a repeat of the bitter fight three years ago that ended with 30 cents added to the tax, they say.

But Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Montgomery, who is sponsoring the legislation, said a cigarette tax increase could fly this year as a welcome alternative to delaying the income tax cut.

Gov. Parris Glendening has proposed delaying a 2 percent income tax cut to balance the state's 2003 budget.

To prevent that from happening, lawmakers will either have to cut the budget or raise other taxes to fill an estimated $175 million budget gap.

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Van Hollen said the cigarette tax increase would have the added benefit of further reducing teen smoking.

But local lawmakers said the increase will simply force more smokers in Washington County to buy their cigarettes in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia.

"You hit our neck of the woods and all you do is drive business across the state line," said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington.

Some local lawmakers said Van Hollen is pushing the tax increase because it plays well in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where he is making a bid for a congressional seat.

"It sounds to me like it's an election year issue that has more to do with Montgomery County politics than state politics," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

"People do funny things in an election year to get votes," said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington.

Van Hollen denied that it's a political move.

Van Hollen, who led the last fight to increase the cigarette tax, said he was responding to new surveys that showed it has reduced youth smoking.

"If something's working you should keep doing it," he said.

Local lawmakers said they will oppose the tax for the same reasons they fought it in 1999.

"Our merchants are losing a lot of money. I've talked to any number of people who tell me they go out of state to buy cigarettes," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

Donoghue said it's hypocritical for the state to use the tax to raise money and put the tobacco industry out of business at the same time.

"It just doesn't make sense to me," he said.

Glendening supports the tax increase but has said he won't actively pursue its passage because of promises made three years ago.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, predicted the issue won't even come up for debate in the Senate because legislative leaders have a policy to debate a controversial issue only once every four-year term.

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