By KAREN ANDERSON
ANNAPOLIS (Oct. 15, 2009)—Eighty-three percent of Marylanders support an increase in the alcohol tax to fund addiction treatment and developmental disability services, according to a state-wide Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies poll released Thursday.
"This poll clearly sends a message to our elected officials that despite the popular wisdom that no one will support a tax increase, voters have the ability to understand the needs of their fellow Marylanders," said Laura Howell, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Services for Persons with Developmental Disabilities.
The poll, which surveyed 833 registered Maryland voters by phone in mid-September, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Last spring, legislation to increase state funding for those with developmental disabilities by raising the tax on distilled spirits, beer and wine was presented in both the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates, but did not come to a vote in either body.
Maryland's public mental health system has been cut by $45 million—roughly 5 percent—in the past year. Roughly $29 million of these cuts have a direct impact on people with developmental disabilities and their families, according to the Developmental Disabilities Coalition.
Advocates are confident the drop in state funding combined with the poll results will bring new attention to the legislation in the 2010 session.
Still, some legislators are adamantly against tax increases.
Del. Patrick McDonough, R-Baltimore County, said he opposes all tax increases and calls the Gonzales poll results "pro-Democratic" and "meaningless."
"They're simple questions that anybody would answer a "yes" to, but they're not the solution to the problem," McDonough said. "They're just a feel-good approach. The solution relies on fiscal responsibility."
Because of powerful lobbying from the distilled spirits industry, passing the bill has always been an uphill battle.
Maryland has not increased its alcohol excise tax on distilled spirits since 1955 and last increased the excise tax on beer and wine in 1972.
"Things are so dramatic now with the (budget) cuts that I think a bill that was seen as sort of a joke ... now takes on a whole new sense of urgency," said Cristine Marchand, executive director for The Arc of Maryland, an advocacy group for Marylanders with cognitive disabilities.
"It's been seen as one of those perennial bills that come every year," she said. "Now it's something to pay attention to."
At a press conference in Annapolis on Thursday, advocates of the tax increase praised Marylanders for their compassion and used the poll results as a sign of their willingness to pay a high price to help their neighbors, even in tough economic times.
Patrick Gonzales, president of Gonzales Marketing & Research, said the Developmental Disabilities Coalition was one of 12 private clients who submitted questions to be included on its larger state-wide survey in mid-September. The coalition paid roughly $1,300 for the two questions to be included in the survey.
"People seem to support it," said Gonzales. regarding the increase of the alcohol beverage tax. "Whether it's a wise choice or not, I guess the elected officials will decide that."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.