Higher alcohol tax to pay for school projects

Money from higher prices at bars and liquor stores is paying for athletic fields in Howard County, renovations to schools in Montgomery County and a new high school performing arts center in Anne Arundel.

On Wednesday, Maryland's Board of Public Works approved $18 million for school construction projects in the three counties, doling out the first chunk of revenue from the 50 percent increase in the sales tax on alcohol that the General Assembly approved in April. The tax rose to 9 percent, from 6 percent, starting July 1.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, emphasized the jobs that would be created by the projects, asking officials from each school system who attended the board's meeting to estimate how many workers would be needed.

"There is such a disconnect between the choices we make together and the economy we share together," O'Malley said, striving to show that the increased taxes would be plowed back into the state's economy by bolstering its workforce.

The board is expected to approve school improvements for Baltimore County and other systems when it meets again in two weeks.

The increase in the alcohol tax is expected to generate $85 million per year. The legislature set aside $47 million for school projects in the first year, but all of the money will go to the state's general fund in subsequent years.

Most of the money was earmarked in the legislation for Baltimore City and for Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, drawing criticism from Republican lawmakers who called the allocation unfair. They said the earmarking was used to get votes for the measure from those counties.

The state Board of Public Works, made up of the governor, the comptroller and the state treasurer, approved $4 million in spending projects in Howard County, in part to replace grass football fields with artificial turf at Atholton and Hammond high schools.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat, pressed Wayne Crosby, director of school facilities for the county, on whether upgrading the fields was the school system's most pressing problem.

Crosby noted that the artificial fields would last 20 years and be tough enough to be used by surrounding communities as well as the schools' teams.

Other Howard County projects approved Wednesday included an improved weight room at Wilde Lake High School, new cabinets in the art room at Wilde Lake Middle School, and lockers and a new stadium press box at Oakland Mills High School.

In Anne Arundel County, the board approved $5 million for a performing and visual arts center at Annapolis High School. The panel also approved $9 million toward renovations at three elementary schools and a middle school in Montgomery County. Money will go to projects at Cabin John Middle School, Cannon Road Elementary School, Farmland Elementary School and Garrett Park Elementary School.



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