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Poll bolsters cigarette tax hike proposal

February 22, 2002

Poll bolsters cigarette tax hike proposal



By LAURA ERNDE
laurae@herald-mail.com


ANNAPOLIS - Bolstered by a recent opinion poll and the state's budget squeeze, advocates say a proposal to increase the cigarette tax by 70 cents a pack is gaining momentum in the Maryland General Assembly.

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But there's one major roadblock: Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.

The Smoke Free Maryland Coalition announced the results of its poll, which showed 78 percent of voters would favor a tax increase "as part of an effort to reduce tobacco use, especially among kids and to help balance the state budget."

Critics said the phrasing of the question might have skewed the results.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., D-Montgomery, said the poll should reassure lawmakers that they can raise this tax in an election year and not alienate voters.

Supporters also argue that raising the cost of a pack of cigarettes would prevent young people from taking up the habit and encourage some longtime smokers to quit.

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It would raise $180 million, which is roughly the same amount as a 2 percent income tax cut that lawmakers are also trying to preserve.

Sen. Don Munson, R-Washington, said he will vote against the tax, but conceded that it might have a better chance of passing this year because of the budget problems.

Even if the tax doesn't pass, the state will be able to afford the $12.4 million budgeted for the University System of Maryland Hagerstown Education Center, Munson said.

He said he was reassured of that again Thursday by the chairman of the Senate's capital budget subcommittee.

"The campus is not in trouble," he said.

Miller, D-Prince George's, said the state needs to cut the budget instead of raising the cigarette tax, even though it would be the politically easy answer to the budget dilemma.

"The public doesn't want to raise taxes. They perceive the budget to be bloated," Miller said.

Although the budget is not fat, Miller said he believes the legislature can cut spending without hurting government services.

The legislature should reserve the tobacco tax for a year when it might really be needed, he said.

Washington County lawmakers oppose the tax hike, with the exception of Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington.

"I'm open to listening to what they have to say. We need every source of money we can find," said Hecht, who supported a $1-per-pack increase three years ago.

Del. John Donoghue, D-Washington, said raising the tax won't raise money because smokers will buy their cigarettes in neighboring states.

Gov. Parris Glendening vowed not to fight for the tax because of promises he made in 1999 when he convinced the legislature to add 30 cents a pack to the tobacco tax, spokesman Michael Morrill said.

But on Thursday, Morrill gave his strongest support yet for the tax by saying Glendening would sign the bill if it passes.

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