By SHARAHN D. BOYKIN, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Despite opposition from Governor Martin O'Malley, some lawmakers said they will still push for a $1-a-pack increase in the cigarette tax - doubling it - to raise money for expanded health care and to curb teen smoking.
"That's good that he won't initiate this," said Delegate James W. Hubbard, D-Prince George's, chair of the Public Health and Long-Term Care Subcommittee. "We'll initiate it for him."
Even though health care expansion is on O'Malley's legislative agenda, he is opposed to the cigarette tax increase because declining cigarette tax revenues would be an unattractive funding source, according to the governor's office.
"He's not inclined to support it," said Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for the governor. As health cost rise continue to rise, income from the cigarette tax will continue to decline, Abbruzzese added.
At a press conference called to announce another try at boosting the tax, the advocacy group behind the legislation, Health Care for All, said it expects the bill to pass this time based on the number of favorable endorsements by 9 of 11 new senators and five House committee chairs.
"It's the state of Maryland versus big tobacco," said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Health Care for All Coalition. "They're the only one to lose. Everyone else gains."
But the lawmakers and advocacy groups gathered at the news conference faced more than just opposition from the Governor. They said they also anticipate objections from the senate president, Thomas V. "Mike" Miller, Jr., D-Prince George's.
But "there's always room for negotiation," said Senator Verna Jones, D-Baltimore, a member of Budget and Taxation Committee and a lead sponsor of the bill.
Tobacco lobbyist said the tax increase is discriminatory.
"It's grossly unfair that every time someone is looking to fund some program they look at Marylanders who smoke," said Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist for the Maryland Tobacco and Candy Wholesalers. "There's been a pattern and mentality of taxing smokers."
The Maryland General Assembly raised the cigarette tax from 36 cents to 66 cents in 1999 and to $1 in 2002.
Health Care for All reports that the increase in cigarette tax should generate about $211 million the first year, $170 million the second year and consecutively decrease by 2 percent each following year.
The money would be used to expand the Medicaid program, fund smoking cessation programs and drug treatment, provide tax credits for small employers who provide health benefits and reduce health care disparities.
MedChi, the Maryland Medical Society, said it backs the bill because it wants to encourage the decline in cigarette smoking that would be expected with the increase in the tax. Health Care for All anticipates that the tax increase would slash the number of teen smokers by 50,000.
"We're concerned about curbing tobacco use," said Martin Wasserman, Executive Director of MedChi.
But despite disagreement among legislator on how to fund health care expansion, some legislators say Marylanders don't mind the increase.
"It's the kind of tax people in Maryland don't mind paying," said Delegate Sheila Hixon (D-Montgomery County), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.