Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's proposed increase to the city's tax on bottle beverages is expected to move forward Monday after being corked up for months by a City Council committee.
Council members, led by Council Vice President Edward Reisinger, plan to resort to a rarely employed legislative maneuver to bypass the committee and hold a vote on the measure, which is the centerpiece of the mayor's school construction funding package.
"There's nothing in the city that's more important than our young people," said Councilman Brandon Scott, who intends to vote for the tax. "I can't kick the can down the road for school construction like it's been done for my entire life."
The measure, which is opposed by retailers and beverage industry lobbyists, has been mired in the Taxation and Finance Committee since February. Committee Chairman Carl Stokes has said that he has not scheduled a vote on the tax because a majority of the committee members, including himself, oppose it. However, the majority of council members support the tax.
Under the mayor's plan, the tax would increase from 2 cents to 5 cents in July 2013. Finance officials project that it will generate $10 million, which will be coupled with other sources to float $300 million in bonds to repair and reconstruct the city's dilapidated schools.
Store owners and beverage industry lobbyists have pushed hard against the increase, saying it will push shoppers over the city line to pick up beverages. A coalition of education activists, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, has been rallying support for the tax. An ACLU report estimates that it will cost $2.8 billion to fix the schools, many of which lack working heating and air conditioning systems, and have outdated laboratories, libraries and athletic fields.
Reisinger, who, as floor leader is responsible for pushing the mayor's agenda, announced last week that he planned to petition the bill out of committee. The council has not successfully bypassed the committee process in recent memory, although Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke attempted to use the tactic two years ago to pass a law to force large retailers to pay workers a "living wage."
Councilman Bill Henry said that although he had supported the effort to revive the living wage bill, he had come to frown upon such tactics.
"The power of [a committee] chair to keep something bottled up in committee is pretty much the strongest power anyone on the council could have," Henry said. "Why would we erode that power?"
Henry, whose district abuts the city line, opposes the bottle tax. He has devised an alternative plan that would use a tax on billboards, along with 25 percent of the city's proceeds from slots revenue, to float bonds for school construction. Rawlings-Blake wants to use 10 percent of the slots money for school construction and devote the rest to her plan to lower property taxes for home owners by 9 percent over nine years.
Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said Saturday that he has not decided how to vote on the tax. Young had previously pledged to support it, but on Thursday, angered by Rawlings-Blake's rejection of his plan to increase spending for youth programs and fire companies, he announced that he might change his position.
"I made a commitment that I would vote for it because it's for school construction and it goes into a fund created by the people of Baltimore," Young said Saturday. "My word has always been my bond."
But, he cautioned, "I said I have a right to vote my mind if I wanted to."
Young said that he thought the tax was "regressive and unfair." He said that if he votes for the tax, it would only be to support proceeds going toward improving the city's schools.
Ian Brennan, a Rawlings-Blake spokesman, said the mayor is optimistic that the bottle tax would be approved by the council Monday. He said the mayor wants the tax approved to persuade state lawmakers to support a broader plan, advanced by schools CEO Andrés Alonso, that would generate $1.2 billion for school construction.
"This is our contribution to what we hope is a larger project," Brennan said. "This will show we have skin in the game."
An earlier version misspelled Councilman Brandon Scott's name. The Sun regrets the error.
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