Container-tax ads give Burns free time, a shot at Schmoke


*TC The way Clarence H. "Du" Burns sees it, the people of Baltimore who oppose a tax on bottles and cans have been ignored by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. And the smoky-voiced former mayor, who is now running to unseat Mr. Schmoke in the Democratic primary, bluntly tells them so in radio commercials that aired last week.

"It makes me angry to see Mayor Schmoke ignoring the wishes of Baltimore citizens and the City Council. . . . Should he get away with this?" Mr. Burns asks in the 60-second spots that criticize the mayor's veto of a City Council bill to repeal the container tax. "I say no. . . . The mayor has delivered a slap in the face to your City Council and to you."

What follows, though, is not the standard pitch for votes. In fact, the ad never mentions that Mr. Burns is a candidate for mayor, and neither he nor his campaign committee paid for it.

Rather, the radio spot is the latest salvo in an increasingly hard-knuckled campaign by the beverage bottlers and sellers to lift the 2-year-old tax and pressure the City Council to override the mayor's veto when it meets Monday.

And it has provided Mr. Schmoke with an opportunity to accuse Mr. Burns of serving special interests rather than considering the best interests of the city.

"This is a demonstration of Mr. Burns' willingness to be a pawn of a special interest," said Larry S. Gibson, Mr. Schmoke's campaign manager. "I think the citizens of Baltimore want a mayor who is independent. They don't want one who is controlled by Annapolis or one who is controlled by a special interest."

The charge by the Schmoke campaign shows "they don't know Du Burns," Mr. Burns said.

He said he sees nothing wrong in appearing in the ad at the industry's expense because he believes, as they do, that the tax is inherently unfair. And, in fact, he says he made no promises to the beverage industry if he's elected.

"Along the fringe areas of the city, all the merchants are crying the blues," Mr. Burns said last week. "Like the guy told me over in Morrell Park, he is losing 38 percent of his container business; and if he's losing 38 percent, he's losing money."

"If I didn't believe in it, I wouldn't do it," Mr. Burns said of his position. "If it made that much difference in the budget . . . we could phase it out over two years, three years."

Joseph A. Schwartz, a lobbyist representing the Maryland Soft Drink Association and a coalition member, agreed that the coalition has no commitment from Mr. Burns to undo the tax.

But I think I know what he is feeling about it when he says the average kid in his neighborhood pays an extra 5 cents [for a bottle of soda] because the guy in his neighborhood jacks it up 5 cents, not 2 cents," he said.

In this election year, opponents of the container tax have pointedly reminded voters who's on their side.

Mayor Schmoke vetoed the bill May 30 because the Council had not found ways to replace the $6.9 million generated from the tax -- four cents on containers larger than 16 ounces and two cents on containers 16 ounces and smaller.

Without that revenue, Mr. Schmoke predicted layoffs or cuts in service. When he vetoed the measure, he offered several compromises for the City Council's consideration. But several council members said the mayor's proposals amounted to too little, too late.

"If the mayor felt that strongly opposed to the termination of this revenue source and he really wanted to offer alternatives, then he should have done it in a much more forceful manner and at a much earlier time," said Councilman Timothy D. Murphy, D-6th.

"The Council began a serious consideration of the termination of this tax in late December and continued the discussion on a weekly basis, and the mayor did not offer any alternative positions until the day he vetoed the bill."

On that same day, Mr. Schmoke predicted the beverage industry would retaliate against him for his veto.

Within two weeks, merchants opposing the tax contacted Mr. Schmoke's most visible and well-known challenger in the mayoral race. The radio ads featuring Mr. Burns appeared on five local stations and followed similar commercials that aired in April, which attacked City Council members who votedagainst the tax repeal.

Mr. Schwartz, the soft drink lobbyist, said the coalition approached Mr. Burns because the container tax is a political issue: "It was another example of why you don't want to live in the city."

Mr. Schwartz said bottle tax opponents in Baltimore County -- which repealed its tax in December -- joined a larger effort last fall to defeat former County Executive Dennis Rasmussen. While container tax opponents gathered petition signatures to repeal the tariff there, Mr. Schwartz said, they learned "how bad people felt about Rasmussen."

"We have just done the same thing in the city in front of grocery stores, signing petitions. . . . Schmoke is in worse trouble than Rasmussen was," Mr. Schwartz maintained.

But supporters of the mayor say the beverage industry coalition has waged a campaign of misinformation; and, without replacement revenue, the mayor had little choice but to veto the bill. A few councilmen who supported the tax repeal even questioned the lobbying tactics.

"It's extraordinary," Second District Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge said, referring to the form letters, postcards, newspaper ads and radio commercials produced by the container tax coalition. "We are not so easily intimidated by special interest groups because we are closest to the people. The preponderance of my constituents are supportive of this tax if it represents a reduction in their property tax."

But coalition members -- who won't say how much they have spent on their lobbying efforts -- contend that their customers oppose the tax.

"We have been talking to people on the street for months now. People in the city just don't want the tax," said Kate Whiting, manager of public affairs for Mid-Atlantic Coca-Cola Bottling Co. "There is no reason why a Baltimore City resident should have to pay more in the form of a tax on a can of soda. We're hopeful that the Council will do the right thing for the people of Baltimore, and the right thing is overriding the mayor's veto."

But the likelihood that the City Council will override the veto appears slim. Several council members who voted against repealing the tax are standing their ground.

"I told them I was not wedded to the tax. And frankly I would be very willing to repeal it if we had something to replace it with," said Fourth District Councilman Lawrence A. Bell, one of the council members targeted by the container tax coalition in an earlier series of radio ads. "The bottom line is now that we have it we are dependent on it."

As a former mayor, Mr. Burns said, he knows the city's financial problems and its great need for money. But he said he would have handled the dispute over repealing the tax differently. If he and the City Council couldn't agree to alternative funding sources, Mr. Burns said, he would have tried to phase out the tax.

While Mr. Schmoke used "the mayor's prerogative to veto," Mr. Burns said the City Council's vote to repeal the tax reflected what the citizenry wanted. "If you got a majority of the Council, you take for granted you have a majority of the people," Mr. Burns said.

The container tax radio ad is the second time in as many weeks that Mr. Burns has received media exposure at no cost to his campaign.

Earlier this month, a political action committee known as "The People's Choice Inc.," handed out the first of 18,000 audio tapes lampooning the Schmoke administration.

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