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POLITICAL NOTEBOOK: Proposed use of alcohol tax money questioned

When looking at how to spend the $4 million it was slated to get from state alcohol tax revenues, the county school system picked projects for five schools, all of which are in Columbia and in the districts where legislators voted for the 50 percent increase in the state alcohol tax.

Though there is no concrete evidence showing this is anything more than pure coincidence, some people have questioned whether politics was the motivating factor behind the choices.

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The General Assembly passed legislation last spring increasing the alcohol tax from 6 percent to 9 percent and earmarked $47.5 million of the added revenue expected this year, including $4 million for Howard County, for local school construction projects. The tax increase took effect July 1, the start of the fiscal year.

The Howard County school system chose, and the state Board of Public Works approved, the following projects: $2 million for artificial turf fields at Atholton High, in District 12B, and Hammond High, in District 13, and $2 million for various renovations at Oakland Mills High School, also in District 13, and Wilde Lake High School and Wilde Lake Middle School, both in District 12B.

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District 13 Dels. Guy Guzzone, Shane Pendergrass and Frank Turner and Sen. Jim Robey, as well as District 12 Sen. Ed Kasemeyer and District 12B Del. Liz Bobo, all voted for the alcohol tax increase. The legislators are all Democrats from Columbia, except for Robey, a Democrat from Elkridge.

District 12A Dels. James Malone and Steven DeBoy, both Democrats from Baltimore County, as well as District 9 Dels. Warren Miller and Gail Bates and Kittleman, all Republicans from western Howard, voted against the alcohol tax increase. No schools in their district stand to benefit from the revenue earmarked for Howard.

Kittleman said his constituents shouldn't be penalized because he didn't vote for the tax increase.

"It's all politics," he said. "It's not about people."

School board members discussed the projects and the funding at their meeting last week.

"I was asked to focus on the Columbia schools in terms of projects that might qualify for this funding," Ken Roey, the school system's executive director of facilities, planning and management, told the board members.

Asked after the meeting why he was directed to only focus on Columbia schools, Roey said: "I took my direction from Mr. Brown."

Ray Brown, the school system's chief operating officer, said he asked Roey to focus on Columbia schools because they were older and had a high proportion of students who are eligible for free and reduced meals, two of the criteria the legislation specified that the Board of Public Works should consider in approving projects.

During the meeting, board member Brian Meshkin said there have been rumors "that these funds are given out in areas to reward people for their vote on the alcohol tax."

Regardless of whether or not that is true, Meshkin said he prefers the board have a clean slate. The other board members agreed and asked school system staff to come back to them with a list of priority school construction projects from which they could choose to use the funding.

In an interview last week, state Comptroller and Board of Public Works member Peter Franchot said the board did not direct local jurisdictions to only look at projects in the districts where the legislators voted for the alcohol tax increase.

Though he wouldn't comment on the selection of Howard's projects, Franchot said he was surprised to hear Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's response to his question at the Oct. 19 Board of Public Works meeting about why Baltimore County only requested projects that would benefit schools in the western part of the county.

"When the General Assembly agreed to create an opportunity for one-time funding using the alcohol tax revenues, the (Baltimore County) delegation agreed that those districts that supported the alcohol tax would then be the beneficiary of that $7 million," Kamenetz said at the meeting.

Franchot called Kamenetz's answer "an absolute stunning description of machine politics" and a "rare window" into how Baltimore County operates.

The board, in a 2-1 vote, approved Baltimore County's requested $7 million in projects. Gov. Martin O'Malley and state treasurer Nancy Kopp voted to approve the request, while Franchot voted against it.

Guzzone, co-chairman of the Howard County delegation, said the county's legislators did not come to any sort of agreement on how the alcohol tax funds should be spent.

Guzzone said he, and likely other legislators, talked to school officials about projects and advocated for schools in their district.

"Regardless of if this person asked for it or that person, (the school system) had a choice of whether or not they would make the request," he said. "The delegation has no authority over the school system."

Gas tax increase

In addition to increasing the alcohol tax, the General Assembly last spring considered increasing the gas tax.

Though the latter proposal never made it to the Senate or House floor for serious debate, the issue is expected to resurface as one of the more controversial proposals during the 2012 legislative session.

Last week, top elected officials from Baltimore and from Montgomery and Prince George's counties testified before state lawmakers at a joint House committee hearing in support of a gas tax increase as a way to raise revenue for long-overdue road construction projects.

Notably missing at the hearing was Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, who spoke in favor of an increase last spring.

Ulman said his absence did not indicate a lack of support for raising gas taxes.

"We just couldn't get down there for scheduling (reasons)," Ulman said. "We were asked two days before."

Ulman said he still believes the state needs to find ways to fund infrastructure improvements and "the gas tax is going to be one of those areas that we have to look at."

However, he said the proposed increase of 15 cents "seems to be a high number."

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