By Sarah Anchors and Amy Dominello
ANNAPOLIS – As state legislators look to the start of the next session Jan. 13, money is on their minds: how to dole out a tobacco settlement, whether to increase cigarette costs, and how to fund transportation needs and divide education funds.
Department of Transportation officials said they need more revenue to follow through on Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s campaign promise to reduce gridlock. But key legislators said they will wait for a task force’s recommendations before deciding whether to raise the gas tax.
Many legislators say they would vote to more than quadruple the tax on cigarettes to deter younger smokers.
As for education, Glendening has said he hopes to hire more teachers, build more classrooms and reduce class size.
One campaign promise the governor may have to renege on is a requirement for all guns sold in the state to have owner-specific locks. Key legislators said Glendening does not have their support. GAS TAX
The governor’s Transportation Investment Committee reported recently the Maryland Department of Transportation may not have enough money to match one quarter of the $340 million in federal funds promised to the state each year until 2003 for highway construction.
The panel must decide if it should recommend the state raise its 23.5-cent-a-gallon tax on gasoline by a nickel, to fund long- term construction and mass transit projects. The hike would make the tax the nation’s third highest.
The governor and some legislative leaders said they would favor raising the tax if the Transportation Department proves it needs the revenue to complete planned projects.
But House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman, R-Howard and Montgomery counties, said his caucus would only vote for a gas tax increase if other taxes were cut, such as the income tax.
Maryland’s gas tax, now 12th highest in the nation, funds close to a third of the state’s construction and maintenance for mass transit, roads and bridges, said Jack Cahalan, a Maryland DOT spokesman.
There is also an 18.3-cent-a-gallon federal tax.
The state tax increase would generate more than the $143 million collected annually from the 5-cent raise approved in 1992, Cahalan said.
An increase could help pay for Glendening’s promises to build a Purple Metrorail line that would cross Montgomery County, and upgrades to the Interstate 270 and 70 interchanges in Frederick County, among others, officials said. CIGARETTE TAX
The governor and 90 legislators signed a petition while campaigning in favor of adding $1.50 to the 36-cent-a-pack tax on cigarettes, which Glendening said is needed to deter underage smokers. Most of the proceeds from the tax would be used for ads to further dissuade teens from smoking, he said.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor, D-Allegany, said he backs the governor’s proposal, but Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, said the government should not raise taxes when there’s a budget surplus.
“The tax would be hurting the poor because they smoke the most, and people are going to smoke regardless,” Miller said. “We would just be gouging them, and they would have less money to buy milk, bacon and eggs.”
Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation subcommittee on the capital budget, said the tax would not prevent smokers from lighting up. The Charles County Democrat said it would instead create a black market for cigarettes.
The House Ways and Means Committee passed a cigarette tax increase the past two years, but the proposals failed on the House floor. Committee Chairwoman Sheila E. Hixson, D-Montgomery, said in 1999 she wants the Senate to move on the bill first.
Senate Minority Leader Martin G. Madden, D-Howard and Prince George’s counties, said he would vote for a cigarette tax increase if an already approved 10 percent income tax cut is accelerated to take full effect within two years, instead of the scheduled five.
During his campaign, Glendening said he would consider the acceleration, but his chief legislative officer, Joseph Bryce, said the governor now wants to, “Step aside, take a look at revenue estimates, and see if such a reduction is possible.” TOBACCO MONEY
One of the biggest challenges facing the General Assembly this spring will be dividing up the proceeds from a $4 billion- plus tobacco settlement.
Under a deal struck in November by 46 state attorney generals and the leading four tobacco companies, Maryland would receive $54 million almost immediately and the remaining money over 25 years. The settlement is repayment for Medicaid dollars spent on treating patients with tobacco-related illnesses.
But, the federal government could take up to half of the state’s tobacco monies because it matches state expenditures on Medicaid expenses for 90 percent of the recipients. State and local funds cover the remaining 10 percent.
As part of the settlement deal, some of the state money must go to tobacco farmers because crop sales may suffer.
Glendening wants the rest of the money to go to children’s health care, Bryce said.
But some legislators have other thoughts.
“Out of 188 legislators, each one of us knows where we want the money to go,” said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat.
Hollinger, chairwoman of the health subcommittee of the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, said she would like it to go toward a mix of health care and anti-smoking education.
Kittleman said money should go toward education.
As for tobacco farmers, Del. John F. Slade III, a Democrat from St. Mary’s County, said the settlement means more than switching crops. “It’s helping farmers become computer literate and refine their business management abilities,” he said.
The governor would like to see the Legislature enact his campaign initiative to help reduce class size in early-grade reading classes and seventh-grade math classes by hiring 278 new teachers for the 2000 school year, said spokesman Don Vandrey.
The governor has not announced a target class-size number, but Del. James W. Campbell, chairman of the education subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee, suggested 20 students.
Last year, the Legislature approved close to $73 million for school construction, and this spring, Glendening wants to budget another $250 million to build and renovate about 2,000 classrooms for fiscal year 2000, Vandrey said.
The Senate Finance Committee chairman and House majority leader agreed the governor’s estimate is appropriate because schools are over-crowded.
Miller said higher education deserves more funding, too, especially scholarships for students who can’t afford tuition at Maryland colleges and universities. Glendening wants to assist university students who pledge to teach in Maryland schools, as does Campbell, whose committee deals with long-term education funding.
Campbell, a House Democrat who represents parts of Baltimore City and county, warned that the state should steer away from broad, costly scholarships that it would be unable to afford in less prosperous years.
The governor is also awaiting recommendations from a task force on whether or not to revamp the University System of Maryland, which embraces 11 campuses and two research facilities. Officials at some of the schools have claimed they have been shortchanged by the system.
USM spokesman John Lippincott said task force recommendations will likely translate into bills that tinker with the universities’ operations but fail to make major overhauls.
Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, the Prince George’s County Democrat who chairs an education subcommittee, foresees tweaks to funding distribution. “We need to fund (the University of Maryland,) College Park as the flagship it is, so it can be competitive with other schools,” she said.
Meanwhile, the governor said he plans to push a bill to require within three years that all guns sold in Maryland be “smart guns” that fire only if the thumbprint of the owner is detected. But Senate, House and committee leaders question whether the technology is practical, reliable and affordable. -30-