Stokes: Committee has votes to kill bottle tax

Three members of a key City Council committee say they oppose Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's proposal to more than double the city's bottle tax — enough to kill the bill.

That has angered supporters of the bill, who accuse Councilman Carl Stokes, the chairman of the council's Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee, of holding back public education.


The tax increase is part of the mayor's plan to fix dilapidated schools. Stokes is one of the three council members on the five-member committee who oppose it.

"Councilman Stokes is standing as a roadblock toward improving the quality of our schools for our children," said Bishop Douglas Miles, chairman of the interfaith group Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development. He accused Stokes of "deliberately misleading the public" about the issue.

Stokes — who briefly ran against Rawlings-Blake in the last mayoral election — and fellow committee members Bill Henry and Warren Branch say they oppose the bottle tax hike because they are convinced the plan would hurt city businesses by encouraging customers to buy beverages more cheaply over the county line.

The committee's other two members, Edward Reisinger and William H. Cole IV, support the plan.

Stokes called accusations that he is bottling the bill up in his committee "laughable."

"If they want me to call the vote, it loses," he said.

Rawlings-Blake's proposal would increase the bottle tax from 2 cents to 5 cents in July 2013, a move projected to generate roughly $10 million more in revenue. At least nine members of the 14-member council have publicly stated their support — enough for passage, if the measure could make it out of Stokes' committee.

Reisinger, Rawlings-Blake and Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young met with Stokes recently to try to persuade him to change his position, according to Reisinger.

Reisinger said Stokes should vote the bill out of committee, even if he opposes it, in the interest of giving the full council the final say. Alternatively, he said, the committee could pass the legislation to the full council without a recommendation.

"Stokes is doing an injustice to the council and his colleagues," Reisinger said. "He's being stubborn about it. Sometimes I think some of my colleagues don't want to see the mayor have a win."

Henry said he opposes the bottle tax increase because there could be better options available to raise the money for schools. He has proposed a tax on billboards that he says would raise more than $1 million.

Stokes has proposed charging $5 million in fees to colleges, hospitals and other nonprofits for beds used within the city limits. He also thinks revenues generated by speed cameras could be used to pay for school construction. He also suggested the mayor could completely overhaul the budget, using existing funds for police for the schools.

"We should reorder the current budget," Stokes said. "I think the money is there now."

Branch said he opposes the tax increase because it would negatively affect residents in his district. He fears layoffs if the bill passes.


Henry said the proposal "would not be the first bill to die in committee, and it will not be the last."

Rawlings-Blake wants to combine funds raised from the bottle tax with 10 percent of the revenue from the city's planned slots casino and $12 million in savings from a recalculation of teacher pensions to create a $23 million stream of revenue that could leverage $300 million in bonds.

Rawlings-Blake spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said Stokes has "a number of options to allow the full council to get a full up-or-down vote on a critical issue for funding schools," such as those suggested by Reisinger.

O'Doherty said several of Stokes' alternative proposals either violate existing contracts with institutions or are not viable.

Stokes said he could bring the measure up for a vote as early as June. He said the committee must first analyze the budget to see if additional revenue streams are needed. If they are, he said, the committee will consider the bottle tax along with several other tax increases.

ttle tax along with several other tax increases.