Tobacco farmers, convenience store operators and cigarette manufacturers lined up yesterday to oppose Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposal to double the state's cigarette tax.
In the first legislative hearing on the cigarette tax issue this year, critics said the increase would drive some store owners out of business and send many Marylanders out of state to buy their smokes.
"A tax increase may, perhaps, make good politics," said Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist for cigarette wholesalers and the state's vending machine operators. "But the realities are that businesses are hurt by increasing taxes on products that are selling."
Glendening administration officials and other supporters of the bill counter that a major tax increase on cigarettes would stem smoking, particularly among youth, and would generate revenue to help balance the governor's proposed cut in the state's income tax rate.
The administration bill, which would double the state's 36 cents-per-pack tax on cigarettes, faces an uncertain future in the General Assembly.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has been harshly critical of the governor's proposal, saying it would be bad policy to raise one tax to help cut another.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. has said he would support only a smaller cigarette tax boost, with some of the proceeds being earmarked for anti-smoking programs and health education, something Glendening has resisted.
But there is significant support within the legislature for boosting the tax. For example, 32 delegates -- nearly half of the 71 needed to pass a bill -- are co-sponsoring a measure that would go beyond Glendening's and increase the cigarette tax to $1.36 per pack. That would give Maryland, by far, the highest levy in the nation.
Under the Glendening proposal, the state cigarette tax would total 72 cents per pack, which would give Maryland the fourth-highest levy among the states.
Virginia, by comparison, has a state tax of only 2.5 cents per pack, although some local jurisdictions add their levy. Delaware's tax is 24 cents per pack, while Pennsylvania's is 31 cents.
Glendening's health secretary, his budget chief and other anti-smoking advocates touted the health and fiscal benefits of the tax boost at yesterday's hearing.
Martin P. Wasserman, the secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene, noted studies showing that cigarette tax increases in other states and Canada have led to decreases in smoking. He predicted that a sharp increase in cigarette prices would make it unaffordable for many minors to take up smoking. About 25 percent of Maryland's 12th-graders are regular smokers, officials said.
"We must protect our children and prevent them from becoming a statistic tomorrow," Wasserman told the House Ways and Means Committee.
Joining Wasserman in support of the bill were representatives of the state's local health departments, Advocates for Children and Youth and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Budget Secretary Frederick W. Puddester said the governor is counting on about $100 million in new revenue from the cigarette tax increase to make up some of the $450 million that would be lost in a 10 percent cut in the income tax rate.
"It's a key part of the governor's plan," Puddester said.
Trying to blunt one area of criticism, Wasserman said the state is willing to work with tobacco farmers to help them find new crops.
But legislators from Southern Maryland, home to most of the state's tobacco farms, testified that it would be hard to find a crop as lucrative as tobacco.
Corn or beans, for example, would be only one-10th as lucrative as tobacco, said Del. John F. Wood Jr., a Democrat from St. Mary's County.
"They can't survive off that," Wood said.
Pub Date: 2/19/97