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Cigarette tax bill advances

April 05, 2002|BY LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. struck a deal Thursday that clears the way for a $1.3 billion increase in state aid for education - including $23.1 million for Washington County - over the next six years.

Most Washington County lawmakers remained opposed to the plan because the first two years would be paid for by hiking the cigarette tax by 34 cents per pack.

The House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday sent the bill to the House floor by a vote of 15 to 6.

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Committee members Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, and Del. Joseph A. Bartlett, R-Frederick/Washington, both voted against the plan, which could come up for a final vote as soon as today.

Until Thursday, the House and Senate seemed hopelessly deadlocked on the education spending plan because Taylor and other House leaders were reluctant to commit to such large spending increases without assurances money would be available.

Taylor, D-Allegany, broke the logjam by requiring the legislature to approve the increases again in two years.

"We are doing it in a 100 percent fiscally responsible way. We're not walking out of here with a structural deficit," he said.

Some Republicans said Taylor's idea is not sufficient.

"At some point the bill comes due," McKee said.

McKee and Bartlett said a cigarette tax increase isn't the proper way to pay for education and will send smokers across state lines to buy cigarettes, along with gas and food.

"I'm always very skeptical of any bill that ties something like this to a tax increase. I'm very uncomfortable tying those two things together," Bartlett said.

McKee said no one tried to twist his arm to vote for the tax increase.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, had said he was coerced into voting for the tax or risk losing $12.4 million for the University System of Maryland Hagerstown Education Center.

Under the plan, Washington County schools would get an extra $2.2 million from the state in the 2003 budget year. Of that, $1.2 million would come from the cigarette tax increase and the rest would come from an increase in a grant the county receives for being among the poorer counties.

To win passage of the plan, lawmakers tinkered with recommendations made by the Thornton Commission, which studied how to adequately and equitably distribute the state's education money.

The funding formula was changed to benefit Montgomery County, which had complained it would be shortchanged by the formula, which mostly benefits poorer jurisdictions.

The legislature is also moving toward appointing a blue-ribbon panel to examine all the state's funding sources, which will address the future funding questions, Taylor said.

Republicans have criticized the commission as a justification for tax increases.

"We've dumped it in the laps of the future governor and General Assembly," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

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