Monday, October 19, 2009

Compassion Trumps Pocketbook: Maryland Voters Support Increase in Alcohol Tax

By Laura Howell, Executive Director, Maryland Association for Community Services.

A Gonzales poll conducted in September of over 800 voters in Maryland supports what many of us have always believed - that Maryland voters not only have compassion, but they believe in reasonable solutions to real problems facing their fellow citizens.

The issues at stake deeply affect thousands of Marylanders of all ages, across all regions.

In Maryland, 1 in 3 people have someone with a developmental disability in their lives – a family member, a friend, or someone else they care about, who may have Down syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Autism, or another developmental disability.

Maryland ranks 43rd in the nation for funding for services for people with developmental disabilities, and the budget cuts made to development disability services this year have only made things worse.

Maryland’s Waiting List for adults and children with developmental disabilities includes thousands of people, many of whom are in crisis. Many have waited for decades for essential services, as caregivers grow older and struggle to continue to provide care to their adult children, and people with disabilities languish while they wait.

The families of people with developmental disabilities are often forced to quit a job or work part-time in order to care for their son or daughter at home. Without support, family stability is threatened, and Maryland loses tax revenues from people who can no longer work. Without access to services, people with disabilities themselves lose the opportunity to work, and to contribute to Maryland’s economy.

Unfortunately, once people come off the Waiting List, they enter a system of services that that has been extraordinarily under-funded for years.

This erosion of funding for critical services, combined with the recent budget cuts, has resulted in a fragile system of low-wage workers struggling to care for 22,000 Marylanders in residential, day and employment programs. These 22,000 people and their families rely on non-profits funded by the State to provide care and support, and the ability of agencies to continue to operate sound and safe programs is growing increasingly tenuous.

While services offered by private community providers cost far less than services provided in state institutions, the State continues to fall further and further behind in even minimal increases to keep pace with inflation, to ensure adequate funding for services in community settings. This year alone, services for people with developmental disabilities experienced two rounds of budget cuts, totaling over $30 million.

Although this is certainly a depressing situation for people with disabilities, their families, and the agencies that provide services, the results of a Gonzalez poll conducted in September are heartening. The charts below illustrate the responses of over 800 voters across Maryland.

When asked whether they would favor a five-cent per drink increase in the alcohol tax to fund services for people with developmental disabilities, they overwhelmingly expressed support - 75% favor the tax increase, and only 17% oppose it. The support cuts across party lines, with 63% of Republicans, 70% of Independents, and 83% of Democrats polled answering favorably.

Notably, in every region of the state, a majority of those polled strongly support an increase in the alcohol tax to fund developmental disability services.

This poll clearly sends a message to our elected officials that despite popular wisdom that no one will support a tax increase, voters have the ability to understand the needs of their fellow citizens, and to support a smart and fair solution.

Legislation will be introduced this year in Annapolis that would address the critical needs of people with developmental disabilities, mental illness, and substance abuse. Senator Rich Madaleno and Delegate Bill Bronrott will again champion the legislation to increase the alcohol tax by 5 cents, to increase funding for all three types of services. The results of the Gonzalez poll, combined with town hall meetings across the state, illustrate the strong support for this legislation. The time is now to provide care and support for Maryland’s vulnerable citizens. In short, “5 cents makes sense”.

For the full results of the Gonzales poll, go here.