A 3-cent bottle tax increase to raise money for city school repairs last night won preliminary City Council approval – with supporters saying that Baltimore’s decades-old problem of dilapidated school facilities trumps criticism that the strategy is regressive and would hurt small business.
“This is part of a big plan for our children, something that is going to fix the schools while we’re still alive to see it work,” said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke.
When Clarke added “This is only ‘step one’ of that plan,” the schools advocates packing the council chambers cheered and several of them uttered an emphatic “yes!”
Clarke’s remarks seemed aimed at critics who have charged that the bottle tax hike – subject of a months-long lobbying battle between city school advocates and the beverage industry – is inadequate to the task at hand.
According to the ACLU, it would take an estimated $2.8 billion to fix the problems in Baltimore’s public schools, including antiquated heating and air conditioning systems, leaky roofs and shabby sports facilities and science labs.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake estimates that her plan would generate $10 million that could be used, together with other funding sources, to float $300 million in bonds for school construction costs.
“Money for our children should be on the front end of the budget, not the back end,” said Councilman Carl Stokes, who voted “no” on the bill.
Other jurisdictions contribute more toward schools, said Stokes: “We need a better plan, a stronger plan.”
Beverage industry representatives and other opponents, meanwhile, said the tax hike threatens local businesses.
“Three new grocery stores have opened in the past three months within a mile of the city line,” said Highlandtown supermarket owner Rob Santoni, in a statement distributed after the meeting. “They have a competitive advantage because they aren’t forced to pay the beverage tax.”
The stage was set for last night’s full council vote on the bill when it emerged earlier in the day from the Committee on Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee, which Stokes chairs.
Voting “no” last night, along with Stokes, were council members Bill Henry, Warren M. Branch and Helen Holton.
Voting “yes” were council members Brandon M. Scott, James B. Kraft, Robert Curran, William H. Cole IV, Edward Reisinger, William “Pete” Welch, Nick Mosby, Rochelle “Rikki” Spector, Mary Pat Clarke and Bernard C. “Jack” Young.
The council’s 11 to 4 passage of the bill on “second reader” signals its likely final approval at the council’s next meeting.
Young called for a roll call, and every member except Mosby took the opportunity to say a few words before casting their votes.
Noting that it was 10 years since he graduated from Mervo (Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School), Scott recalled conditions there.
“No air, no heat, asbestos hanging over my head, dropping on me as I’m trying to learn,” he said. Cole said his son’s elementary school in Federal Hill frequently dismissed early last year because of the heat.
Henry, meanwhile, said there was a better way to pay the massive repair bill for city schools. He was referring to his plan, which would combine revenue from a new tax on billboards with an increase in the city’s share of projected casino revenue.
“We don’t have to put an additional burden on citizens to do things for our kids,” Henry said. Henry noted in a recent op-ed that 90% of Baltimore’s 1,500 billboards are owned by Arizona-based Clear Channel Outdoors.
Branch said the bottle tax would hurt the impoverished residents of his east Baltimore district who would not be able to drive outside the city line to find cheaper bottled beverages.
“They don’t have the transportation to go out to the Wal-Marts,” Branch said. More taxes, he said, would drive people out of the city, rather than bring in 10,000 families, the mayor’s stated goal. “We’re going to lose 10,000 people,” he said.
A Yes, a No and a Yes
When it came time for Council President Young to speak, he began by complaining that he’d “been criticized” for changing his position.
The Brew and, later, Patch reported that Young had seemingly reversed his earlier stance and announced his intention to vote against the bottle tax. (This was in a fit of pique over the Mayor’s criticism of his alternative budget plan.)
Last night he was back on the reservation, voting “yes” for the Mayor’s bottle tax as he’d promised back in May. But clearly Young wasn’t happy about it.
“It’s an unfair regressive tax,” said Young, noting that he was voting for it “only because” it’s going into a fund dedicated to school construction.