Budget proposal panned, praised

September 21, 2007|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Emerging details of Gov. Martin O'Malley's strategy for filling Maryland's $1.7 billion budget gap elicited a range of local opinions Thursday.

A possible $2-per-pack cigarette tax, up from the current $1, earned both criticism and praise among a handful of people surveyed.

One business owner didn't want the state sales tax to go up, a measure O'Malley recommended Thursday.

And why, one person wondered, was a gasoline tax increase left out of the governor's $2 billion revenue package?

This week, O'Malley, a Democrat, has released pieces of his deficit-reduction plan.

On Thursday, he proposed raising the sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent.

He has called for a decrease in the state property-tax rate of 3 cents per $100 of assessed value.

He wants a new income-tax structure, in which those in the wealthiest bracket would pay more and others would pay less.


Unfazed by the proposed sales-tax increase, Brian Urban of Hagerstown asked, "What's another penny?"

Michael Gregg of Hagerstown disagreed.

"That's pretty bad," he said of the increase. "Some states don't even have sales tax."

Solomon Atamaya, the manager of Worldwide Grocery Store on West Franklin Street, said a higher sales tax would hurt small businesses like his.

Atamaya, though, liked the idea of doubling the cigarette tax - an idea expected to come from O'Malley, but one he hasn't announced.

Atamaya said a stiffer tax would make it tougher for teenagers to buy cigarettes, which is how he thinks it should be.

On a downtown sidewalk, Gale Younker of Hagerstown blasted the cigarette tax idea.

"Go after the people who drink liquor," she said. "Go after the people who eat beef."

Younker said a higher tax won't make her quit.

"If cigarettes become $6, $7 a pack, I don't care," she said. "I'm going to buy them."

Robert Thompson of Hagerstown, who was with Younker, said a cigarette tax is an unfair swipe at people with addictions.

"You're allowed to die any way you want," he said.

Thomas Hoard Jr. of Hagerstown called the cigarette-tax approach to raising money a "self-defeating prophecy" because people will quit smoking, cutting into revenue.

He liked legalizing slot machines to generate revenue. Slots, he said, have done "a tremendous amount of good" for West Virginia's horse-racing industry.

Referring to the popularity of Charles Town Races & Slots in Jefferson County, W.Va., Hoard said, "Our tax dollars are migrating."

Washington County Commissioners President John F. Barr, a Republican, said he's not a fan of slots.

"I gamble by going to work every day and running my own business," said Barr, the president of Ellsworth Electric.

Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire, a Democrat, said he doesn't mind having slots at the state's horse tracks, which O'Malley supports.

But he questioned the soundness of basing the state's financial security on the popularity of vices, such as gambling, which could reach a saturation point.

Similarly, he said, a sales-tax increase could hurt Maryland if customers shop elsewhere.

Barr said he doesn't favor a tax increase, but it appears inevitable.

Aleshire applauded O'Malley for taking a "noble" shot at reducing the deficit, but noted that the $280 million in cuts the governor has proposed is less than 20 percent of the projected shortfall.

Aleshire said his political party "has done a 180-degree swing" by not trying to use a gasoline tax to pay for transportation projects.

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said it would be hard to raise the tax now with gas prices hovering at around $3 per gallon.

What does this mean to you?

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget plan would:

· Increase the state sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent

· Apply the sales tax to health clubs, tanning parlors, massage services and real estate property management services

· Raise income taxes for 3.7 percent of the wealthiest Marylanders and lower them for 95 percent of the state's residents

· Cut the state property-tax rate by 3 cents per $100 of assessed value

It also is expected to:

· Double the tax on a pack of cigarettes from $1 to $2

· Legalize slot machines, possibly at the state's horse-racing tracks

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