ANNAPOLIS – Southern Maryland lawmakers are claiming victory for their farmers at the close of the 1999 General Assembly session – a victory they said was only made possible by tremendous legislative compromises.
The biggest fight came against Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s proposed $1 per pack cigarette tax increase. After a Senate committee knocked the tax down to 36 cents, tax opponents staged a filibuster to block a vote on the increase.
With the filibuster in full swing, and time in the session running out, Sen. Roy P. Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, said Glendening approached him and asked what it would take to break the filibuster.
“I kept telling the governor Friday and Saturday, `You know, I’m proud of them (farmers) and I really don’t want to see them planting another crop. It’s not practical. They’re not going to make it,'” Dyson said. “To break this (filibuster), I told him we wanted some help for them (farmers).”
After almost a year of pleading on behalf of growers, it took the hardball tactic to get the attention of Glendening and other legislators. Dyson was a key vote and they came to negotiate with him.
“All of a sudden, they listened,” Dyson said.
The result was a 30-cent tax increase, a commitment of 5 percent to help tobacco growers from Maryland’s $4.4 billion windfall from last year’s national tobacco settlement and a $21 million commitment to smoking cessation programs.
Southern Maryland senators said although the final version of the tax was far less than the original proposal, some businesses – especially those around border states with lower tobacco taxes – will be hurt.
“From where we started, I was elated,” said Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles. Even so, he said, “I think the tax puts our small businesses at a big disadvantage.”
His colleague from Charles County agreed.
“Looking at where we were a month ago compared to where we ended up, it was probably more than what we thought we would end up with,” said Delegate Van T. Mitchell, a Democrat and chairman of the Southern Maryland delegation. “It was looking pretty bleak there for some time.”
The Southern Maryland delegation fought long and hard against the tax, since the counties of St. Mary’s, Calvert and Charles contain about 1,200 tobacco farmers. Other growers are scattered throughout Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties.
Delegates, senators, retail association representatives, farm representatives, and lawyers from the National Smokers Alliance testified in committee after committee about the economic hardship and loss of a centuries- long tradition that Glendening’s tax would cause the region.
Glendening’s approval to allot 5 percent of Maryland’s share of last year’s national tobacco settlement to farmers was another big score for Southern Maryland. This money, to be released beginning July 1, 2000, will be used to finance alternative crop growth and other programs to aid tobacco farmers.
“We don’t want this to be just agriculture welfare,” Middleton said. “We want legitimate programs funded to help our farmers … to continue until we can put the infrastructure in place for alternative crops that will be at least as profitable as tobacco.”
Middleton said Southern Maryland lawmakers intend to meet soon with the Tri-County Council, the organization appointed to head distribution of the funds.
“The deal we got is a very, very good deal for farmers in Southern Maryland,” Middleton said. “It should give our farming community some ray of hope to hang in there. It’s not the death of Maryland agriculture.”
Next fiscal year, farmers will receive up to $2.5 million. In 2001, they will receive a minimum of $9 million. After that, growers will receive 5 percent of whatever monies are distributed into the tobacco restitution fund, which was was established this session to collect and distribute Maryland’s settlement money over the next 25 years.
“I’m sure at this point in time, they (farmers) have to be feeling at least a little bit better than they did,” Mitchell said. “We hope this is some sign of hope for them.”
Mitchell said funds from the 5 percent will be used to stabilize prices as the anti-smoking movement forges ahead. But it will also be used to prevent the end of tobacco growing.
“We hope it maintains the young farmers and keeps them from leaving and selling their properties,” he said.
In the end, Southern Maryland lawmakers said they never thought the results could be as good as they were for their farmers.
“I would have never dreamed, from the turn of events, that there would be a filibuster and that would work to our advantage,” Dyson said. “This is going to make a very, very big difference.”