Education advocates, retailers prepare for bottle tax showdown

Teachers, students, retailers and beverage industry lobbyists are preparing for a showdown Wednesday as the battle over raising Baltimore's bottle tax to fund school repairs moves to a skeptical City Council committee.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake wants to increase the tax from 2 cents to 5 cents and use the proceeds to float bonds. The mayor, who saw her school construction initiatives wither in the General Assembly, is pushing the council to quickly pass the tax, although it would not go into effect for more than a year.

She plans to tour a West Baltimore elementary school Wednesday morning to call attention to the city's poorly maintained schools.

"It's time to really make the tough decisions and start investing in our schools," said mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty. Rawlings-Blake wants the council to pass the tax swiftly to ease the passage of state legislation next year, he said.

The mayor's proposal to increase the cap on the school system's ability to float bonds, which is currently set at $100 million, failed in the General Assembly this year. A companion measure to earmark the city's bottle tax proceeds to pay off such bonds also failed to pass.

In the City Council, the members of the Taxation and Finance Committee are divided on the bottle tax increase. While two of the five members say they support raising the tax, the others are reluctant.

Councilman Bill Henry, who opposed the initial 2-cent tariff two years ago, says he promised the mayor he would keep an open mind about the increase — and that means he does not want to make a decision until after city schools CEO Andrés Alonso describes the scope of the problem to the council at a separate hearing next week.

"We should talk about what the problem is before we talk about how we should be solving it," Henry said. "There are lots of plans [to raise revenue for school construction] out there, but none of them have been presented to the City Council, which is being asked to raise money from businesses."

But Council Vice President Edward Reisinger, who is also a committee member, said he wants to speed the bottle tax to the full council, where it appears the measure would pass.

Reisinger, the mayor's floor leader, said he will urge his fellow committee members not to vote for or against the bill, but to simply move it out of committee.

"I want to let my colleagues have the opportunity to vote on it," he said. "They all have schools in their district that need work."

As the committee mulls the bill, they are being bombarded by a chorus of supporters and detractors.

Scores of education advocates, including students and parents, as well as store owners, grocery and bottling plant workers, are planning to pack the council's chambers Wednesday.

Ellen Valentino, a beverage industry lobbyist, said the tax would "cannibalize local businesses and impose a regressive tax on local families."

"We fear that this will cost jobs in Baltimore City and lost sales," Valentino said. Owners of independent grocery stores, including Santoni's in Highlandtown and Bel Garden Bi-Rite in Northeast Baltimore, say that the tax has caused them to lose revenue and cut back staff.

Meanwhile, a coalition of education advocates, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, has rallied around the issue.

"The mayor's bottle tax is a very good first step, and we could see new buildings going up in the next couple years if we implement this tax," said Bebe Verdery, chair of the ACLU's education initiative. Her organization published a study two years ago showing schools needed about $2.8 billion in repairs.

Rawlings-Blake has proposed combining the proceeds of the bottle tax — an estimated $10 million a year — with 10 percent of the revenue from the planned slots casino and $12 million in other school system savings to float $300 million in bonds.

The city's efforts to convince the General Assembly to pass legislation related to school construction failed this year, in part, because the mayor, Alonso and the council did not present a united front.

Alonso pushed a plan to float $1.2 billion in bonds, while Rawlings-Blake supported her more modest $300 million approach.

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