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.
• • •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 email@example.com