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Laws including high-proof grain alcohol ban take effect Tuesday

Maryland joins at least a dozen other states Tuesday in banning the sale of 190-proof grain alcohol, a measure that lawmakers hope will help to reduce sexual assaults and binge drinking among college students.

The bill is one of more than 200 that go into effect Tuesday; other bills expand the earned income tax credit for low-income residents and exempt more wealthy Marylanders from the estate tax, overhaul Baltimore City liquor board practices and establish incentives to encourage investment in research universities.

The grain alcohol ban, backed by a group of university presidents as a safety measure, comes amid a growing focus on rape and drinking to excess on campus. Del. Charles Barkley, a Montgomery County Democrat, said increased awareness of the risks associated with grain alcohol bolstered support for the bill he sponsored.

"Getting it off the market will maybe reduce problems at the college level," Barkley said, adding that students have used it to get "bombed out of their mind," putting themselves in danger.

Local bars and liquor stores sold off the last of their 190-proof (95 percent) alcohol Monday — if they hadn't sold out already.

Dick's Last Resort, a bar and restaurant on Pratt Street, sells 24 gallons a week of its popular drink Trash Can Punch, which is made with Everclear grain alcohol, Cruzan Rum 151 and Hawaiian Punch. The bar will continue to make the punch, but it won't include the Everclear, said manager Emily Snow.

While Barkley said liquor store owners and workers didn't organize opposition to the bill, and some said they sold the last of their grain alcohol months ago, others said the ban is more about political grandstanding.

Jay Chung, manager of Charles Village Schnapp Shop, said the store only sold a few of its remaining 30 bottles of grain alcohol this weekend and will try to sell the rest back to the distributor. The law is "an annoyance more than anything because now we have to deal with this inventory; if we don't sell it, we really can't do anything with it," he said.

He also called the law "an exercise in futility" and predicts manufacturers will soon come out with slightly lower-proof alcohol, such as 188-proof alcohol, as a way around the law. He said lowering the allowable level to 120-proof might have more of an impact.

While Barkley said 151-proof is still a concern, lawmakers targeted what he called "the worst of the worst" with the ban on 190-proof alcohol.

Maryland residents will also see other changes in law starting Tuesday. The earned income tax credit will increase by 0.5 of a percentage point, the first of several increases until 2018.

More than 250,000 Maryland tax returns claimed earned income credits of several hundred dollars on average in tax year 2010, according to a legislative analysis of the bill.

Another measure cuts the number of families subject to the estate tax, which proponents hope will encourage more millionaires to stay in Maryland. Eventually estates of less than $5 million would be exempt.

The changes in the Baltimore liquor board come after a state audit revealed widespread mismanagement and spotty enforcement. The mayor will now have oversight of the board, and it must be more transparent with records posted online. Other bills allow the board to issue or transfer some beer, wine and liquor licenses in different areas of the city where it couldn't before.

Other laws encourage investment in higher education. The state plans to set up a fund to match donations of $500,000 or more to endow chairs at research institutions in an effort to increase investment in the colleges.

Another bill creates a state income tax credit for donations made to an eligible foundation or trust that supports charitable activities in the community or area that it serves.

The law to gradually raise Maryland's minimum wage to $10.10 an hour also takes effect Tuesday, but employers won't have to start paying the first increase to $8 an hour until January. Subsequent increases take effect annually in July.

Members of the General Assembly had attempted to pass the grain alcohol ban in previous years but were stopped in the House of Delegates. This year, university officials worked to sway delegates.

David Jernigan, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, said grain alcohol is more than twice as potent as a typical shot of liquor.

He said he thinks the bill was approved now — after neighboring states Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania passed it — because in the past seven years young people have started to shift from drinking beer to drinking more distilled spirits.

"We do all sorts of things together to make everyone safer," Jernigan said. "This is the equivalent of a traffic light in alcohol, this is putting a big red light in front of this product, which is so potentially dangerous."

Wells Discount Liquors in Rodgers Forge stopped selling the 190-proof version of Everclear a few months ago in favor of the 151-proof version, said beverage consultant Patrick McKee. McKee said 190-proof is too high and unnecessary for human consumption.

"You can get the same effect from a lower proof. ... Most folks are looking for a high-alcohol, flavorless beverage to mix," he said. "151-proof is still rock-and-roll, big-time alcohol."

Some liquor store workers said grain alcohol was no longer a big seller. Tom Ward, manager of Eddie's Liquors of Charles Village, said he doesn't think the new law will affect the store's revenue because it has "got a lot of other things that sell much better than that." He said mostly 21- to 24-year-olds purchased grain alcohol.

Chung said he has "seen people get in much more trouble with 80-proof" liquor and that grain alcohol is more of a "once in a while ... niche" item. Chung estimated the store sells up to 30 times more 80-proof alcohol than grain alcohol.

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

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New laws

More than 200 bills that passed this year take effect Tuesday. Here are how some of those bills will affect you:

Gas tax: The tax per gallon will increase by less than half a penny to 27.4 cents per gallon, thanks to a provision of the 2013 gas tax that ties annual increases to inflation.

Community giving: Donating to endow a qualified community foundation can earn you a tax credit of 25 percent of the donation, thanks to a bill designed to spur investment in community groups.

Estate tax: Maryland is slowly raising the threshold of estates that must be taxed under state law from $1 million to $5 million. The law that takes effect Tuesday exempts estates of $1.5 million or less, provided the decedent dies after Jan. 1, 2015.

Minimum wage: Maryland is slowing raising its minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. The law that takes effect Tuesday makes it official, and businesses need to prepare to start paying minimum-wage workers $8 an hour in January, up from the current minimum of $7.25.

Liquor board reforms: A sweeping set of reforms takes effect to reshape the troubled Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners. Among several provisions, the law puts the liquor board under more direct supervision of the mayor and requires more electronic records and greater transparency from an agency that's been beset by bureaucratic problems.

"E-nnovation" fund: As part of a bill to encourage investment in Maryland's research colleges, the state will set up a fund to match donations to endow chairs at Maryland's research institutions. Starting next summer, the next governor will be required to set aside $8.5 million to pay to match donations of $500,000 or more.

Earned income tax credit: As a way to help the state's poorest residents, a new law will slightly increase the amount of money awarded to low-income workers who already qualify for the state's earned income tax credit. The amount of the credit will increase from 25 percent to 25.5 percent this year, and it will eventually go up to 28 percent in 2018.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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