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House panel rejects massive cigarette tax hike

House panel rejects massive cigarette tax hike

Dustin Hurst
March 12, 2012
Dustin Hurst
Author Image
March 12, 2012

Last year, backers of a massive Idaho cigarette tax hike couldn’t garner a hearing for their measure, seeing no support for the idea.

This year, those same sponsors got the hearing they desired, but not the hoped-for outcome for their $50 million annual cigarette tax increase.

Before a standing-room-only crowd, members of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee voted 11-5 against the legislation, effectively killing the push for a second straight year.

The bill would have hiked Idaho’s cigarette tax by $1.25, bringing it up to $1.83 per pack. Idaho’s cigarette tax, at 57 cents per pack, is one of the lowest in the nation.

Heidi Low, speaking for the American Cancer Society and a consortium of health-related interest groups, said the tax hike bill isn’t designed to drive up revenues, but rather drive down youth smoking rates. Many studies and scientific evidence, Low said, point to higher prices leading to fewer young people smoking and will cause some youth smokers to stop the practice. “Even R.J. Reynolds agrees with us,” said Low, citing an in-house study produced by the smoking giant.

The tax hike would have brought in at least $50 million annually, with the funds going primarily to health-related costs and program. About 5 percent of the money would have gone to smoking cessation programs, while another 5 percent would have been tagged for substance abuse programs in schools.

The coalition, Low explained, decided on the $1.25 increase amount to ensure smokers would “feel it in their pocketbooks.”

The 15 percent of Idaho teens who light up collectively smoke at least 3.1 million packs per year, Low noted. She projected the bill would mean more than $400 million worth of savings in long-term health costs for Idahoans and state health programs.

Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, voiced his support for the bill, saying it would force smokers to pay for the costs they eventually incur to state health programs like Medicaid. “This is about who pays the bill for entitlements and the cost of government,” Roberts explained. “I don’t want to grow government one penny. It’s about who pays the bill.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, backed the measure because of the good he believes it would do for Idahoans’ health. “I think this is good public policy,” said Rusche, a retired pediatrician. “I think it will directly affect the health of Idahoans.”

But Rep. Lenore Hardy Barrett, R-Challis, threw down the rhetorical gauntlet, calling the tax hike measure “social engineering” and asking its backers to reveal their true intentions. “If you don’t want folks to smoke, make it illegal,” said Barrett. “Send folks to jail. At least that’s honest and shows the courage of your convictions.”

Committee chair Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, pondered if smokers should pay for the costs they incur to the state. “Why shouldn’t the people using tobacco be paying that, or at least part of it?” asked Lake.

This may have been the best chance for backers to get their measure through the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, where all tax issues must begin their journey through the Idaho Capitol. Lake, a big fan of the tax hike, is retiring from the Capitol to make way for others interested in public service.

The man in line to replace Lake, vice chair Gary Collins, R-Nampa, voted against the bill Monday and has stated he isn’t a fan of cigarette tax hikes. Collins doesn’t face an electoral foe in the primary or general elections this year.

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