The Baltimore Sun

Underage drinking gets a boost

One might think the last thing lawmakers in Annapolis would want to do is make alcoholic beverages more readily available to minors - and make them cheaper to boot. But, believe it or not, legislation that would accomplish just that is poised for final approval in the Senate today.

In a recent opinion, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler found that flavored malt beverages or "alcopops" have been wrongly categorized as beer by the comptroller's office and should be treated as hard liquor. Such sweet drinks are often flavored as lemonade or fruit punch and tend to attract underage drinkers. But under a dubious Senate bill, alcopops would be clearly defined as beer in state law and thus could continue to be sold in many more outlets, and the tax on them would be 9 cents a gallon instead of the $1.50 per gallon applied to distilled spirits. That's a sweet deal for producers but bad public health policy.

Surveys show the younger the drinker, the more likely he or she will prefer an alcopop over the alternatives. Few bills are more deserving of an unceremonious toss to the legislative scrapheap. The color of money

The debate over whether there should be public financing of campaigns for seats in the General Assembly has often neglected one of the more glaring problems with the current system - the lack of participation by African-Americans.

A survey by Progressive Maryland found that people living in predominantly black communities give about 5 1/2 times less in political donations than state residents in general. In other words, they have little clout in the corridors of power. By diminishing the need for such donations, public financing would help address a glaring inequity.

If, as many believe, the likelihood of public financing being approved this year turns on the Senate's actions, Baltimore will find a familiar face in the middle of the debate - Sen. Joan Carter Conway, chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

Campaign finance is historically a thorny issue for lawmakers, but Senator Conway's support could prove instrumental in passing a genuine reform effort this year. Passing along victims' bills

It's not hard to be outraged at the notion that money for crime victims and their families should ever go to people convicted of violent crimes. But banning felons from such benefits, as Baltimore County Sen. James Brochin proposes, may cost taxpayers.

That's because awards from the Maryland Criminal Injuries Compensation Board often go to cover a victim's medical bills. Deny a private hospital such payment because the victim is a convicted drug dealer or worse and any uncompensated care is financed through higher hospital reimbursement rates - and, ultimately, higher insurance costs for the rest of us.

One might also question the fairness of any ban; felons can repay their debt to society, and determining which past offenders are deserving of compensation and which are not could prove an administrative nightmare.

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