It's no wonder that Idaho Democrats pitched a parliamentary fit trying to convince their counterparts in the Republican Party to take up consideration of a tax on cigarettes to help plug the state's $92 million budget sinkhole before more education and health care services fall to their doom.
The tiny minority of 13 Democrats faced down 57 Republicans in the House and demanded that bills be read in their entirety before a vote. In doing this, they slowed the Legislature's end-of-month rush to adjourn and highlighted the fact that it was leaving piles of cash on the table by refusing even to hold a hearing on a bill that would raise $50 million with an increase in cigarette taxes.
While Dems stood their ground, legislation mandating $35 million in cuts in the state's share of Medicaid, which provides health services for the poor and disabled, was on its way to be signed by the governor. With the loss of federal matching funds, Medicaid recipients will see cuts totaling $108 million.
While conservatives justified the cuts because of declining state tax revenues that continue to be battered by the recession, they did little to raise cash that could cushion the blows.
Rep. Dennis Lake of Blackfoot, who chairs the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, had planned to sponsor the tax hike earlier in the session, but couldn't get enough support to get his bill printed. Now Dems want the committee to consider their bill.
Idaho now levies a tax on cigarettes of 57 cents per pack, one of the lowest in the nation. The increase would take it up to $1.25. The amount it would generate would go a long way to plug the $92 million shortfall in the state's general fund.
A coalition of health groups argued convincingly that increasing the price of a pack of cigarettes would discourage youths from beginning to smoke. The tax was embraced by a handful of savvy legislators who know that budgets have two parts—revenue and expenses—not just one.
Sheer ideological "no-new-taxes" pigheadedness blocked the increase. Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, said, "We don't need" the extra revenue.
Others excused their lack of action by saying the state has to strike a deal with tribal leaders who decide what taxes are levied on retail sales on reservations before a tax could move ahead.
Hogwash. Their failure to act is inexcusable and reprehensible in the utmost given the very real pain and distress they are about to inflict on Idaho's weakest and most powerless citizens.