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Md. Senate votes to raise tobacco tax by 30 cents; 3-day filibuster ends, but deal falls short of Glendening's hopes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Avoiding a potentially embarrassing State House defeat, Gov. Parris N. Glendening rounded up enough Democratic support to turn aside a filibuster last night and won Senate approval for a 30-cent-a-pack increase in the state tax on cigarettes.

While the amount is substantially less than the $1 increase he initially proposed, Glendening could claim victory after spending the day cajoling and bargaining with Democrats who had held up a vote on the tax bill for three days.

Before securing the vote, the governor acquiesced to demands from legislators that the state spend at least $21 million annually on smoking-cessation programs. Under pressure from Southern Maryland senators, he also pledged that 5 percent of the state's share of the national tobacco settlement, or as much as $9 million annually, will go to help tobacco farmers.

Glendening, despite his success, was clearly disappointed to win only a 30-cent increase in the state's 36-cent tax.

"It's the best you can do when you're pulling very, very diverse interests together," he said.

The approval last night of a tobacco tax measure allowed the Senate to begin work on dozens of bills that had stacked up in the last days as opponents tried to talk the tax to death.

The vote clears the way for the General Assembly to finish work on the state budget for next year and to turn its attention to other key issues such as collective bargaining for state employees, a major new scholarship program and a bill to provide lucrative tax breaks for Baltimore developers.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. ordered his delegates in for a rare Sunday session today to begin addressing the backlog. The annual 90-day legislative session is scheduled to end at midnight tomorrow.

The 30-cent tax increase, which would go into effect July 1 and generate about $77 million in annual state revenue, now goes to the House of Delegates, which earlier approved Glendening's proposed dollar increase.

Some pro-tax delegates have threatened to vote against any tax measure of less than $1, saying a smaller increase would fail to accomplish the legislation's stated purpose of discouraging teen smoking.

But Taylor said his chamber would have little choice but to accept the Senate version with so little time left before the Assembly adjourns.

"Whatever the Senate passes will come up for a 'yes-no' vote in the House, and we'll pass it," said Taylor, a Cumberland Democrat.

The tax increase would push Maryland's levy on a pack of cigarettes to 66 cents, the 11th highest in the nation. The bill would also impose for the first time a 15 percent tax on cigars and smokeless tobacco products, a goal of anti-tobacco advocates for the past several years.

"This package will save some lives," said Vincent DeMarco, executive director of Smoke Free Maryland, a coalition of grass-roots community and religious groups that lobbied for the tax increase.

The tax issue had tied up the Senate for much of the past three days. While a majority of the 47-member Senate supported the measure, under the chamber's rules, it took only 16 members to prevent a vote.

The Senate's 15 Republicans were joined by four conservative Democrats to hold up the vote until 8: 30 last night.

Final agreement on a bill came after a seemingly never-ending series of meetings between Glendening and senators in the rooms behind the Senate chamber.

Breakthrough came in early evening when the four holdout Democrats agreed to the 30-cent increase. They had earlier sought only a quarter increase, a proposal that was sharply opposed by pro-tax Democrats in the Senate.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a critic of the tax, ended up voting for it. He said he was pleased that the Democratic-controlled Senate had come together to support a key initiative of the Democratic governor.

"Not anyone is totally happy with this agreement, but it was important that the Democratic Party prevail," said Miller of Prince George's County. "We can't allow 15 Republicans to totally stop the government."

Glendening also made clear he would use the tax issue against Republicans. "All you have to do is look at the board," he said. "Vote after vote, the Republicans, every single vote, were with the tobacco lobby. I was pleased so many Democrats held strong to protect our children."

On the final bill, which passed 29-18, only two Republicans supported the tax increase, Martin G. Madden of Howard County and Jean W. Roesser of Montgomery. Five Democrats joined 13 Republicans to oppose it.

Many opponents of the bill decried the idea of raising a state tax during strong economic times, while others said raising the cost of cigarettes would do little to deter smoking.

Leaders of the filibuster said their efforts had forced important changes -- reducing the amount of the tax and committing a significant amount of state funds to anti-smoking programs.

"But for this little exercise the last three days, this wouldn't have happened," said Sen. Robert R. Neall, an Anne Arundel Republican who spearheaded the filibuster effort. "I thought it was worth the effort."

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee, said the legislature would have to make another $20 million to $25 million in cuts in the governor's proposed $17 billion budget because of the lower tax increase.

Hoffman said many of the local capital projects -- the "pork" in the budget -- would be cut.

She said her priority list included $7.5 million for higher education, $2 million for a program to help Baltimore teachers gain certification, $3 million for drug treatment programs and a variety of spending initiatives designed to address problems in the Baltimore Circuit Court system.

While Glendening used the back rooms to try to win over recalcitrant senators, the ornate Senate chamber stood half-empty most of the day as tax opponents took turns delivering extended remarks.

Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson, a Carroll County Republican, spent nearly an hour reading the names of celebrities who had died of smoking-related diseases.

"Burl Ives. You remember Burl Ives, don't you?" Ferguson said. "Bert Parks, remember him?"

Ferguson then belted out a miniversion of Parks' trademark song, "There She Is, Miss America."

Sun staff writers C. Fraser Smith and Matthew Mosk contributed to this article.

Bills awaiting action

Here are some of the key bills still pending before the General Assembly, which is scheduled to adjourn at midnight tomorrow:

Budget: Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposed $17 billion budget is being discussed by House and Senate negotiators. The task has been complicated by uncertainty over the outcome of the tobacco tax debate.

Collective bargaining: Bills guaranteeing bargaining rights for state employees have passed both chambers, but they differ over whether to include workers in the state university system. A conference committee has been delayed by the filibuster.

Gay rights: The governor's bill to outlaw discrimination against gay men and lesbians was severely weakened by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which has not sent the measure to the Senate floor. There is little chance that a bill acceptable to its sponsors could win final passage, but Glendening says he is hopeful.

Medicaid: Legislation that could expand Medicaid options for the infirm is stalled in the House Environmental Matters Committee after passing the Senate last month. Under the bill, up to 7,500 seniors and others receiving medical care at home or in assisted-living facilities could eventually be covered by Medicaid.

Racing: Final approval could come today for legislation continuing the state's $10 million subsidy for horse-racing purses and authorizing a license for a third thoroughbred track. The track would be in Allegany County.

Education: The House and Senate have passed different versions of the governor's bills to create a $3,000-a-year scholarship program for B students and to hire hundreds of additional teachers for elementary school reading classes.

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