The chairman of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, is leading the charge for a cigarette tax hike, but many other lawmakers aren’t saying how they plan to vote. With the Idaho Legislature convening on Monday, it won’t take long for the issue to live or die.
“I think for anyone to answer that question right now would be premature,” said Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, when asked about the proposal to increase the cigarette tax. “I’m not inclined to answer that.”
Nothing is set in stone with the increase, which may be one reason why legislators are holding their tongues. Lake told IdahoReporter.com in December that the hike could be as much as $1.50 per pack, bringing the total to $2.07 per pack. As it stands, Idaho’s cigarette tax – 57 cents – is the eighth-lowest in the country and the lowest amount of the northwestern states.
Lake is upfront about his support for the idea and is billing the proposal as a way to combat teen smoking and promote good public health. It’s a $100 million idea that could be used to fill the Medicaid budget gap, which some officials believe could reach $174 million in fiscal year 2012.
Lawmakers are starting to take heat on the measure, too. The state’s largest special interest group, the AARP, sent out a message voicing support for Lake’s plan. “AARP commends Lake for standing up during difficult times with an approach to bring more money into critical Idaho programs while helping to reduce the number of young smokers in our state,” said AARP director Jim Wordelman in the statement. “We hope, given the tough budget times expected in the coming session, these types of proposals will see widespread support in the legislature.”
Unlike Lake, however, some members of the committee are riding the fence. Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star, said that he is leaning toward rejecting the idea, but isn’t completely certain of his vote. “I haven’t decided yet,” Moyle explained. “But I’m not really in favor of raising anybody’s taxes.”
Another legislator playing it safe is the vice chair of the committee, Rep. Gary Collins, R-Nampa. “I don’t have a specific yea or nay on it,” explained Collins in an earlier interview, “though I’ve never voted for a ‘sin tax’ increase.” Collins isn’t entirely comfortable with discouraging certain behaviors through taxes. “It’s just another regressive tax,” he concluded.
Avoiding taking a position isn’t only coming from the GOP side of the aisle, however. In a lengthy e-mail to IdahoReporter.com¸ Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, explained his position on this issue, which amounted to a “maybe” for his vote. “My libertarian sentiments are that tobacco and other unhealthy things like junk food, power drinks and alcohol are matters of individual choice by adults,” wrote Burgoyne. “Furthermore, at some point sin taxes just become mean, inequitable and counterproductive. The state should not use taxes to pit groups against each other, or simply to permit a majority to escape tax burdens and place them on a minority.”
Burgoyne said he might vote for the tax hike in exchange for passage of some Democratic plans, including a reform of the state tax commission and a decrease in the overall sales tax.
There are those lawmakers who are willing to take a firm stance on the issue. Rep. Lenore Hardy Barrett, R-Challis, opposes the idea and believes a tax hike on cigarettes wouldn’t stop people from smoking. “Having been a smoker, I know people will pay the price,” said Barrett. “You just won’t buy a quart of milk or something else to pay for it.”
Democratic Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, is also taking a firm stand on the proposal and says he will support the measure because it will lead to greater public health.
Committee newcomer Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Hayden Lake, who couldn’t be contacted about the issue Friday, told IdahoReporter.com in early December that he pledged to vote against all tax hikes in the last election and that he intends to keep that promise.
Lawmakers begin the 2011 legislative session Monday when Gov. Butch Otter gives his State of the State address.