No new taxes this year, O’Malley says, but Vinny DeMarco seeks one more

By Len Lazarick

DeMarco FactorLittle news is expected from Thursday’s State of the State address, since the governor’s final budget and legislative package have been rolled out.

But along with the usual talk of “tough choices” and “moving forward,” Gov. Martin O’Malley is likely to tout that he balanced his proposed fiscal 2015 budget with “no new taxes or fees” — the first time in six years he can say that.

Thank God, most Marylanders would agree, but not Vinny DeMarco, persistent advocate of higher taxes on cigarettes and booze for the sake of public health as president of Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative.

DeMarco releases new poll data

On Tuesday, as the snow began to fall, and robbed of his audience at a cancelled senior rally, DeMarco trotted out to reporters a new poll that says almost two-thirds of Marylanders (64%)  support raising the cigarette tax yet another $1. DeMarco had begun pushing last year for that raise.

The survey taken last week by Opinion Works of Annapolis asked 785 randomly selected registered voters the following question:

“To help cut down on smoking, particularly among young people, would you favor or oppose a one dollar per pack increase in the state tobacco tax with the money dedicated to healthcare coverage, the state tobacco control program, long-term care for seniors, and other community-based health initiatives?”

Tobacco poll resultsHalf the people questioned “strongly” favored the proposition while only 27% “strongly” opposed it.

You can argue the question biased the response by saying the tax would cut smoking. The question doesn’t mention that Maryland’s cigarette tax is already $2 a pack, 10th highest in the nation, thanks to DeMarco’s advocacy over the past decade. Three dollars a pack would push Maryland to 6th place, after New York ($4.35), Rhode Island ($3.50), Connecticut ($3.40), Hawaii ($3.20) and Washington ($3.025), and replacing New Jersey at $2.70.

The dollar boost would make Maryland’s tax 10 times higher than Virginia’s 30-cent levy, 49th in the U.S., and six times higher than West Virginia’s 55 cents. Delaware and Pennsylvania are both at $1.60.


Photo by Raul Lieberwerth

Uphill fight

“We understand it will be an uphill fight this year,” said DeMarco. He said Del. Eric Luedtke, D-Montgomery, will be the lead sponsor in the House, with 51 co-sponsors.

The money from the 2007 increase in the tax was used to expand Medicaid coverage, and DeMarco wants to do more of the same.

As in the past, DeMarco’s goal is both to raise more money for health care and reduce use of tobacco by raising the price.

Tobacco lobbyist Bruce Bereano maintains that raising the price just encourages smuggling and cross-border purchasing.

Smoking rates

According to data from surveys by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Maryland ranks 11th in the nation with 19.1% of adults smoking cigarettes; Virginia ranks 23rd at 20.9%, but still below the national average of 21.2%.

But Maryland ranks 4th lowest in the nation for youth smoking at 12.5%; Virginia ranks 15th at 15%.

West Virginia ranks 50th in adult smoking at 28.6%, and 32nd for youth at 19.1%.

DeMarco said lowering smoking rates also requires smoke-work free places, which Maryland passed in 2007, “high enough tobacco taxes,” and a well-funded tobacco cessation program.

DeMarco said part of this year’s bill, which will be introduced in the Senate by Sens. Verna Jones-Rodwell, D-Baltimore, and Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery, restores $21 million into Maryland’s smoking cessation program that is supposed to be funded with tobacco settlement money but that has been diverted into other programs.

Lobbying follows familiar pattern

The new poll is part of a typical DeMarco strategy explained in detail in Michael Pertschuk’s book The DeMarco Factor. It shows how DeMarco gathers support with relentless lobbying, unremitting pursuit of media coverage (like this story), polling showing public support, and then getting candidates for the legislature to pledge their support for tobacco tax hikes (or gun control, DeMarco’s other passion) during the campaign.

“In order to enact something like this, the people have to speak,” he said.

The other part of the poll showed that candidates who support a tobacco tax hike do better against candidates who oppose it, even among Republicans.

“We’re confident the people will elect a General Assembly that supports a tobacco tax hike,” DeMarco.

It doesn’t hurt that, unlike the unpopular gas tax hike passed last year, four out of five Marylanders do not use the product he wants to tax more heavily.