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March 17, 2007:
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By SHARAHN D. BOYKIN, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - A proposal that would expand access to health care for Marylanders with the help of a $1-per-pack cigarette tax increase easily passed the House of Delegates Friday, but faces an uncertain future in the Senate.
Barely moments after Bill 754, the Children and Working Families Health Care Act of 2007, passed the House on a vote of 102 to 37, the most powerful legislator in the Senate declared flatly that its funding source, the cigarette tax increase, is dead in the Senate.
"Everybody in the world, including the governor, the House speaker and the Senate, knows it's not going to pass," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George's.
If legislators approve a cigarette tax, it should be used for balancing the budget, Miller said. The money should not be used for new programs.
"To me this is building an addition on your house when you can't even pay your mortgage," Miller said.
The health care proposal is a favorite bill of House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel. It would allow people with higher incomes to enroll in Medicaid, provide treatment to uninsured drug abusers and require health insurers to offer coverage for dependents up to age 25. The proposal also includes $50 million in funding for Prince George's County Hospital Center.
"No community hospital will benefit more from this than Prince George's Hospital," Busch said.
The cigarette tax is expected to generate about $211 million the first year, $170 million the second year and consecutively decrease by 2 percent each following year. Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has his own set of health care proposals, has said that he does not favor using the cigarette tax to finance on-going programs.
The proposal was fought by House Republicans, who, like O'Malley and Miller, objected to the bill's use of the cigarette tax.
"The main problem that I have with the bill is that it is reliant on, once again, a tax increase to solve a problem," said the House minority whip, Delegate Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington. "This is all at a time when as we all know we have a massive structural deficit that is looming ... this is at a time when I think and many in this chamber think we need to curtail spending ..."
Del. Steven R. Schuh, R-Anne Arundel, voiced concerns about funding health care with an unreliable source of revenue.
"It is not financially sound to implement a multi-hundred million dollar program on the back of a declining and unreliable source of revenue like tobacco," said Schuh. Next year after budget issues have been resolve would be a better time for such a proposal, he added.
Busch said the bill would benefit not only the poor, but all Marylanders.
"Every other family that has health care in the state of Maryland pays for the 800,000 Marylanders who don't have health insurance," he told a news conference. "It is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately."
Delegate Peter A. Hammen, D-Baltimore, said the House's approval of the measure was progress towards Busch's challenge for delegates to reduce the number of uninsured by half over the next four years.
"We took a giant step towards accomplishing that today by providing access to 25 percent of Maryland's uninsured," Hammen said.