January 4, 2010

Josh Kurtz: Happy New War

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year means Happy New War for Vincent DeMarco, the happy warrior for progressive causes in Maryland.

Through the years, DeMarco, the 51-year-old activist extraordinaire who officially is president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative and president of the Health Care for All! Coalition, has helped bring gun control, higher tobacco taxes, anti-cancer programs and expanded health care coverage to Maryland. That’s a record most governors would envy.

He’s considered something of a nudge around the State House. But DeMarco’s work has touched millions of Marylanders in positive ways. And incredibly, even though he’s been the subject of a book (“The DeMarco Factor,” by Michael Pertschuk, a former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission), most people don’t even know his name.

DeMarco has been at work on his latest crusade, to raise the state alcohol tax and use the proceeds to boost state revenue for health care programs and other community services, for several months now. But he’s wasting no time in this new year mobilizing and pressuring lawmakers.

Today, DeMarco’s groups, along with coalition partners like the AARP and the Maryland chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, will release a new poll that is expected to show widespread public support for his “dime a drink” tax increase proposal. He’ll be joined at news conferences in Baltimore and Annapolis by public health professors and Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett (D), among other supporters.

The state tax on beer and wine was last increased in 1972 – and it last went up for hard liquor in 1955. By DeMarco’s estimate, a “dime a drink” tax would generate $214 million in new revenue, and he has proposed setting aside $89 million of that for a new trust fund that could offset shortfalls in the state’s Medicaid account.

DeMarco’s groups released a poll last March showing 71 percent of voters favoring the increase. He spent the campaign season collecting pledges from candidates for the legislature to back the measure in 2011, and DeMarco says he has at least 20 committed supporters in the state Senate and another 64 in the House – not enough to guarantee passage, but a good start. The new poll, he hopes, will add pressure and win more converts.

“Maryland voters overwhelmingly support the ‘dime a drink’ alcohol tax increase because they know that it will save lives and help Maryland’s economy,” DeMarco says.

But will lawmakers go along? What comes next?

DeMarco’s push for a higher booze tax comes at a time when the state government is stretched beyond imagination, and a thousand worthy causes and organizations are clamoring for officials’ attention – and state resources. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and legislators will be under pressure from several corners to raise an array of taxes – and under equally heavy pressure from other corners to resist the temptation (O’Malley promised during the recent campaign not to raise taxes during the upcoming legislative session).

Despite what DeMarco’s poll results might say, voters, as the recession lingers, might be reluctant to embrace any kind of tax increases, even if it is for a worthy cause and makes eminent sense.

But that will not dissuade the indefatigable Vinny DeMarco. He prepares for long-term battles, not short skirmishes. Compromise is OK.

Strong forces are already lining up against him – the alcohol industry, in all its guises, is one of the most powerful in Annapolis, and engages the highest-paid and best-connected lobbyists in town. They will meet DeMarco fact for fact, statistic for statistic, with apocalyptic talk about jobs lost and businesses jeopardized if the tax goes up even a little. Legislators will listen carefully; many will even be swayed by the arguments – or by their long-standing relationships with the industry lobbyists.

But Vinny DeMarco won’t care. It’s one thing to be a hired gun, and another to be passionate about public health and social justice. He knows he’s right – and that in the end, he’ll probably prevail. Maybe the dime increase will have to be halved to a nickel; maybe it will be phased in over time. But that’s the legislative process, and DeMarco works it deftly.

The General Assembly convenes on Jan. 12, and legislators as usual are scrambling to hold fundraisers and vacuum up special interest cash before the three-month fundraising ban takes hold.

It won’t be Vinny DeMarco’s troops who are emptying their wallets and filling the politicians’ coffers this week. But if history is any guide, that financial disadvantage won’t matter in the end.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached

Last modified: January 4, 2011