ANNAPOLIS – While Southern Maryland lawmakers gave a generally warm reception to Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s State of the State speech Wednesday, they view his proposed cigarette tax as unacceptable and expect it to fall far short of money needed to cover budget increases.
Projected revenues from the tobacco tax are just over $100 million for 1997 and 1998. Legislators want to know how Glendening will pay for a the remainder of the proposed 2.9 percent increase in the 1998 budget.
“With a $700 million increase,” said Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-St. Mary’s, “It’s irresponsible not to say how you’re going to pay for it.
“It might serve to make you popular, but it’s not sound fiscally.”
The $15.5 billion budget includes a controversial 10 percent personal income tax cut, which Glendening intends to offset by doubling the cigarette tax.
All members of Southern Maryland’s delegation oppose the tobacco tax.
“I think we can have an income tax cut without putting an additional tax on tobacco,” Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, said. “Our concern is the message it sends to farmers of all kinds – `Hey, we don’t appreciate what you do.'”
Glendening targeted the preservation of farmland as part of his “Smart Growth” initiative, which seeks to curb suburban sprawl by concentrating new growth in existing city and town centers.
“It protects farmers,” the governor said. “After all, farming is a business.
“Like any business, farmers must make money – enough money for a family to eat, to pay their mortgage, to buy a car, to send their children to school.”
To illustrate his point, Glendening introduced a Dorchester County family who raise corn, soybeans and wheat.
But Del. George W. Owings III, D-Calvert, found a flaw in the governor’s example.
“While it’s true we grow corn and soybeans,” Owings said, “we do in fact grow tobacco. There are 1,200 farming families [in Southern Maryland] who rely on that crop to make a living and pay their mortgages.”
Ray Feldmann, the governor’s deputy press secretary, said that Glendening has asked Secretary of Agriculture Lewis R. Riley to work closely with Southern Maryland farmers to minimize the impact of the tobacco tax. Feldmann said Riley will also discuss alternative crops, but none of the Southern Maryland contingent has heard any particulars of the plan.
Del. John F. Wood Jr., D-St. Mary’s, pointed out that as a cash crop, grain does not approach the yield of tobacco.
“Tobacco can bring in $2,000 to $3,000 per acre,” Wood said. “With grains, you’re talking $200 to $300 per acre.
“Plus you have a much larger investment with a grain crop, such as $100,000 combines.”
Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles, said he has met with the governor several times to discuss the issue, though there’s “nothing on the table.”
Middleton raises cattle, hay, corn, soybeans and tobacco on a farm that has been in his family since 1661. He thinks that his fellow lawmakers have “elevated the level of sensitivity” to the plight of Maryland tobacco farmers, but is looking for something more concrete to help “transition these farmers.”
“We just don’t want a lick and a promise,” Middleton said. “There’s too much at stake here.”
Glendening also targeted education, community safety and job growth as legislative priorities, saying he “wants to make Maryland the best place in the nation to work, to raise a child and to build a family.”
He boasted of a growing economy and the highest number of jobs — 2.7 million — “ever in the history of Maryland.”
However, no mention was made of the 5,000 jobs coming into the state as a result of the expansion of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in St. Mary’s County.
“Were it not for new jobs in Southern Maryland,” said Del. John F. Slade III, D-St. Mary’s, “there would be a net decline of federal jobs in Maryland.”
O’Donnell was also “very surprised [Pax River] wasn’t recognized.”
But Dyson thinks the governor understands the significance of the naval installation, “though he has not made the trip down there that I would like, even though it’s the biggest growing area [in the state].”
Overall, Southern Maryland representatives were impressed by the governor’s State of the State message, calling his plans “clear and well-presented.” Middleton said: “In calling for a sense of cooperation, the governor ensures that when we walk out here in 82 days, we’ll know we have done what’s best for Maryland.” -30-