Legislature Weighs Rise In Tax on Cigarettes
With money tight, Maryland legislators are seriously weighing a proposal to increase the tax on cigarettes by 70 cents a pack, key lawmakers and lobbyists said yesterday.
The proposal would raise Maryland's tobacco tax to $1.36 a pack, making it among the highest in the nation. It also would mark the second time in four years that the General Assembly has raised taxes on cigarette smokers.
When the measure was introduced just a few weeks ago, it was given little chance by lawmakers reluctant to raise taxes of any kind during an election year. Since then, an increasingly gloomy fiscal outlook has prompted some to take another look at the measure -- among them a handful of Senate budget leaders who have led opposition to a tobacco tax increase in years past.
"I think it's got a chance," said state Sen. Robert R. Neall (D-Anne Arundel), the leader of a filibuster that nearly killed the state's last cigarette tax increase in 1999.
Neall continues to oppose the idea, but he said lawmakers will have to make some painful decisions to produce a balanced budget. If the tobacco tax "becomes an ingredient of a wholesome fiscal package," Neall said, "I'm willing to consider anything."
With the renewed interest in the measure, sponsored by Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D-Montgomery) and Del. Barbara Frush (D-Prince George's), Maryland is one of 20 states where tax proposals are under serious consideration. Most of them are cigarette tax increases, according to a recent study by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"There's a new trend in tobacco taxes this year as a result of the budget situation," said Daniel McGoldrick, research director for the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids. As many as 37 states are facing potential budget shortfalls, according to the NCSL study.
Raising the tobacco tax is a politically palatable alternative to increasing income taxes or other levies, McGoldrick said. He noted that polls generally show 60 percent to 70 percent support among voters for higher cigarette taxes.
Higher cigarette taxes also have a health benefit: Studies have shown that more expensive cigarettes discourage smoking. According to legislative analysts, cigarette sales in Maryland slumped more than 16 percent after the 1999 tax increase, when the tax on a pack of cigarettes jumped from 36 cents to 66 cents. McGoldrick said a statewide survey found that smoking among high school sophomores declined even more, dropping by 30 percent.
And the fact that more than 80 percent of Maryland's tobacco farmers have agreed to stop growing tobacco and to accept a state-sponsored buyout is another reason that political opposition to the tobacco tax is at a low ebb.
The 70-cents-a-pack increase would raise about $148 million, according to legislative analysts, nearly enough to let the state move forward with an already approved cut in the income tax. Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who has proposed delaying the income tax cut to balance next year's budget, has said through a spokesman that he will sign the tobacco tax increase if it is approved by the General Assembly.
The matter got a spirited hearing yesterday in the Senate's budget committee, as retailers pleaded with committee members not to adopt a measure that would encourage customers to buy cigarettes elsewhere.
Cheaper cigarettes would be within easy reach in the District, where the tax is 64 cents a pack, and in Virginia, where the tax is 2.5 cents a pack, the lowest in the nation, said Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist for the Maryland Association of Tobacco and Candy Distributors.
If the committee approves the measure, supporters may have a tough fight on the Senate floor, where it faces the opposition of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's).
"It makes no sense, in the final year of this governor's eight-year term, in an election year when we're telling people that we're continuing to cut their income taxes, to slip a tax in the back door," Miller said yesterday.