Bottle tax repeal reflects politics, not economics


For all the wrangling over the budget, the Baltimore City Council's decision to forgo property tax relief in favor of repealing the controversial bottle tax is more a barometer of politics than economics.

The council's approval of a million-dollar cut in the $2.3 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 means that city residents will be able to buy cheaper soda and beer. But they'll still be paying the same property taxes, the highest in Maryland.

Under the phaseout of the bottle tax, Baltimoreans would see the 48-cent levy on a case of their favorite soft drink cut to 24 cents as early as January. The full tax would not be abolished until July 1, 1997.

"I'm not sure this budget is going to have any real impact on folks," said Councilman Carl Stokes of the 2nd District. "It will lessen some of the impact of the container tax, but not completely."

Touted by the most of the council, the $1.1 million budget cut endorsed Monday night to repeal the bottle tax actually was a victory for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

The mayor, who insisted the city could not afford the repeal and also lower the property tax rate, was able to rally enough support to avoid a showdown with the council. He also succeeded in pushing through his own cuts to permit the phaseout.

Those who follow city politics say the mayor benefited from the competing agendas of Council President Mary Pat Clarke, the four council members vying to replace her, and others on the council who want an accomplishment to point to as they seek re-election.

"I don't think there was the will at this juncture in the council to use up the chits necessary to start a budget battle with the mayor," said Arthur W. Murphy, a political consultant. Mr. Murphy is working on several campaigns, including Council Vice President Vera P. Hall's effort to become council president and Julian L. Lapides' race for comptroller.

Mrs. Clarke, who is challenging the mayor's bid for a third term, clearly wanted to avoid a replay of the budget brinkmanship of two years ago.

And the councilman who wanted a three-cent property tax cut -- Joseph J. DiBlasi of the 6th District -- waited until late in the day before trying to persuade his colleagues. Some were reluctant to support Mr. DiBlasi, who is running for the council presidency, because his orchestration of a property tax cut would give him a boost.

When hardly any council members arrived for the first work session on the budget, the mayor's legislative staff began to think efforts for a property tax cut were flagging.

Mayor Schmoke spent a busy day meeting with key council members to try to persuade them not to cut property taxes. As an additional tactic, he held out the prospect of his final approval of the bottle tax phase-out.

Even Mr. DiBlasi wavered, initially saying he wanted to find $1.3 million for the bottle tax, then switching for property tax relief, which ultimately failed.

In the end, the council approved the revised budget in a decisive 13-6 vote. The budget still must receive final approval from the council and the Board of Estimates on Thursday night, mainly a formality.

Those who voted against it were either frequent critics of the Schmoke administration or candidates, including Mrs. Clarke, Mr. DiBlasi and two of his rivals for the council presidency, Mr. Stokes and Lawrence A. Bell of the 4th District.

It was a sharp contrast to 1993, when the council pushed through a nickel tax cut, only to have Mr. Schmoke veto the budget. Nine council members then switched their vote to uphold the budget. The battle led to questioning of the mayor's leadership, Mrs. Clarke's opportunism and the council's will.

Mayor Schmoke said yesterday he was "absolutely pleased with the results" and pledged to sign the bottle tax into law by the end of the week.

"I have said all along that this was not the year that we should cut the property tax rate, and I'm glad that the majority of the council agreed with me on that," he said.

Mrs. Clarke sought to credit the repeal of the bottle tax to the council.

"Basically, the mayor's budget did not have a cut for phasing out the bottle tax. That was accomplished by the Baltimore City Council," she said. "The mayor came up with substitute amendments and that was fine, because basically this is the most regressive tax of all."

At Three Brothers store in Gwynns Falls, co-owner Tom Rothenhoefer was not as interested in the politics as the dollars and cents. He hopes the phaseout, which begins by dropping the 2-cent tax on small containers by a penny, will bring back his old customers.

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