Beam: Cigarette tax hike next in line

By By Jim Beam / American Press

The effort to repeal state income taxes

may be over, but other tax issues continue to dominate debate at the

Louisiana Legislature.

Proposed increases in the state’s 36-cents-per-pack cigarette tax

take the spotlight this week. Meanwhile, Gov. Bobby Jindal

insists he will veto any of the bills if they raise additional

revenues.

Normally, a threat of that nature would

doom any tax increase before it got to first base, but there was a

small sign last

week that members of the House might be engaged in more

independent thinking. However, their 73-16 approval of a 2-cent phone

bill tax last week amounts to peanuts when compared to the

proposed cigarette tax increases.

The phone tax would raise $1 million per year, compared to the proposed increases on cigarettes and other tobacco products

ranging from $57 million to $264 million per year.

Jindal has also threatened to veto the

phone tax measure if it gets through the Senate, but it passed the House

with more

than the two-thirds vote (70) needed to override a governor’s

veto. Overriding those cigarette tax vetoes would be much more

difficult.

Revenues from the phone tax go to the

Telecommunications for the Deaf Fund. It was created to improve

telephone accessibility

for citizens with hearing disabilities. The 2-cent tax replaces a

5-cent-land-line tax and broadens it to cover cell phones,

pagers and long-distance phone lines. The decline of land lines

motivated Rep. Patrick Williams, D-Shreveport, to sponsor

the 2-cent proposal to help make up for lost revenues.

The Jindal administration told

legislators Americans for Tax Reform in Washington, D.C., would call the

phone levy a tax increase.

Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, and chairman of the House Ways

and Means Committee that hears tax bills, told The Lens the

phone tax was a question of doing the right thing rather than

worrying about what some outside group might think.

Six area legislators voted for the

increased phone tax. They are Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley,

R-Lake Charles; Reps.

James Armes, D-Leesville; Mike Danahay, D-Sulphur; A.B. Franklin,

D-Lake Charles; Dorothy Sue Hill, D-Dry Creek; and Frank

Howard, R-Many. Recorded as absent were Reps. Brett Geymann,

R-Moss Bluff; Johnny Guinn, R-Jennings; and Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville.

Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, wants

to increase the cigarette tax from 36 to 60 cents per pack. It would

raise $57 million

annually. Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, is proposing an

increase to $1.41 per pack, raising $264 million a year. Rep. Katrina

Jackson, D-Monroe, has two bills raising the tax to 68 cents per

pack, or $129 million a year. One of her bills is a proposed

constitutional amendment.

The proposed $1.41-per-pack cigarette

tax would equal the tax in Texas and put the state in the middle of the

50 states. The

current 36-cents-per-pack tax is third lowest in the country. The

Missouri and Virginia taxes (17 and 30 cents, respectively)

are lower. New York has the highest tax at $4.35 per pack,

followed by four other states with taxes above $3 per pack. Arkansas

has a $1.15-per-pack tax, and it is 68 cents in Mississippi.

Ritchie, a self-confessed smoker, talks

about his serious addiction to nicotine. His tax measure creates the

Louisiana Healthier

Families Fund, which would get all of the revenues from the

cigarette tax. Half the money would provide funding for the Louisiana

Medicaid program. The rest would go to state agencies promoting

smoking cessation and prevention and cancer research.

Jindal had proposed a tax identical to

Ritchie’s, but those revenues were designed to help replace funds lost

by repealing

or reducing the state’s income tax. The governor said the only way

he would approve any higher cigarette tax is if it reduces

taxes somewhere else.

The National Taxpayers Union, another

Washington, D.C., anti-tax group, in an open letter to Louisiana

legislators said it

was concerned about the prospect of a tobacco tax hike. However,

it made a good argument for higher cigarette taxes when it

said states with high smoking taxes have seen their revenues from

that source decline. Couldn’t that be because higher cigarette

taxes keep young people from smoking and help those who do quit?

The argument that low-income families would be hit hardest is true because most smokers are poor. Small businesses would also

see their sales decline. But those disadvantages have to be weighed against the benefits to be gained.

The health risks of smoking are indisputable. Health care authorities say Louisiana is one of the leaders in the country when

it comes to cancer and almost all chronic diseases. Rep. Ritchie said the state spends $1.47 billion a year in health care

costs directly caused by smoking.

The American Cancer, Heart and Lung associations joined a rally for higher cigarette taxes at the state Capitol last week.

A cancer society official announced that the latest poll shows 73 percent of Louisiana voters support raising the tobacco

tax by $1.05 per pack.

Those of us who quit smoking many years ago can testify to the tremendous health benefits and other blessings we have enjoyed

since then. Quitting is extremely difficult, but higher tobacco taxes and other motivating factors do make it easier.

Legislators need to hear from their constituents right away on this important issue. The cigarette tax bills mentioned earlier

are scheduled to be heard at 10 a.m. Monday by the House Ways and Means Committee.

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Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@americanpress.com