Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has hinted that he will veto City Council legislation ending Baltimore's beverage container tax. If he does, come Independence Day -- when Montgomery County ends its levy -- Baltimore will become the only government in Maryland still collecting a tax on nonrecyclable bottles and cans. That shouldn't happen. But it might if the mayor can't find a way to offset the immediate impact of the loss of that revenue.
Currently, any time you buy a beverage other than juice or milk in Baltimore you pay an extra tax of 2 cents on any bottle or can 16 ounces or less and 4 cents on any container more than 16 ounces. The council legislation would on Jan. 1, 1996, impose a 1-cent tax on containers smaller than 23 ounces and 4 cents on those above 23 ounces. The tax would become 1 cent on all containers on July 1, 1996 and there would be no beverage container tax after June 30, 1997.
The tax should die. It's not fair for Baltimore residents, among them some of the state's poorest citizens, to have to pay more for beverages than anyone else in Maryland. Then, too, ending the tax would be good for commerce. Both the Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola bottling companies, as well as numerous grocery and beverage stores, say they have been losing business in the city ever since Baltimore County ended its container tax in 1991.
Revenue from the city container tax has been dwindling steadily, from a high of $7.2 million in fiscal 1991 to only $6 million last fiscal year. The retreating revenue figures are another indication of declining beverage sales in the city.
But following the council's plan and reducing the bottle tax rate in January would cost the city about $1.3 million in revenue in the fiscal year that begins next month. Mr. Schmoke says that is about the same amount of extra funding he wants to give the Pratt Library. It is wrong for the mayor, however, to look at only one possibility. The city is saving nearly $2 million next fiscal year by privatizing the municipal markets. The mayor should be able to come up with some combination of savings and cuts that would end the container tax without jeopardizing the already underfunded Pratt.
The city's tax made sense as a testament to regional cooperation when it was enacted in 1990. But Baltimore County officials succumbed to pressure from liquor merchants and lifted their tax the very next year. Ways must be found to cushion the fiscal blow, but until a spirit of regionalism returns to the metro area the city bottle tax should end, too.