Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Dems hold cigarette tax hearing

Public weighs in on unintroduced bill

Express Staff Writer

Someone reaches for a pack of cigarettes at Tracy’s Market in Ketchum. Democrats in the Idaho House held an informational hearing Monday on a proposed cigarette tax increase for which the party has failed to garner an official introduction. Republicans argue the bill doesn’t have the votes to pass committee, despite its potential to bring $50 million in revenue to the state. Express photo by Roland Lane

Democrats in the Idaho House vaulted a majority-party stonewall on Monday, holding an informational hearing on their proposed cigarette tax legislation after being denied an official House hearing.

The bill, which was not given a number because it has not been officially introduced, would increase the state tax per pack by $1.25, to $1.82 per pack. According to the bill's fiscal note, it would provide $50 million in additional revenue to the state's general fund.

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said the intent is to use the money to offset the cost of smoking-related illnesses to the state Medicaid program. Medicaid has been cut by $39 million for fiscal year 2012, resulting in a total loss of $108 million to the program because of lost federal funding.

Michelle Long, a nurse at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Boise, said she supports the tax, which she said would take aim against the "human cost" of smoking.

As a nurse, Long said, she saw many veterans who suffered from smoking-related chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a category of lung diseases that includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

'These patients suffocate to death," she said. "The human cost [of smoking] is a significant factor that needs to be addressed."

However, not all those who testified at Monday's informational hearing spoke in favor. Andrea Jackson, president of the Meridian-based chain of service stations called Jackson Food Stores, said the tax was unfair and would put a dent in the chain's sales.

"About 25 percent of our inside sales come from tobacco," Jackson said, adding that the profit margin was already "very low" on cigarettes.

Jackson also argued that such a tax would discriminate against smokers.

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"To raise taxes, it may be necessary, but to single out one group is unfair," she said.

Other members of the public spoke in favor of increasing the beer and wine tax, which has not been raised since 1961, or levying a "fat tax" on soft drinks or other foods with added sugars.

Democrats had previously tried to force a hearing on the bill in the House by requiring that all bills on the House floor be read in their entirety before going to a vote.

Normally a third reading can be disposed of by unanimous consent, but the 13 Democrats united to object to the disposal of the third reading, significantly delaying the legislative process.

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said last week that the tactic is one of the minority party's only means of capturing Republicans' attention. But the party abandoned the tactic with the start of business Monday, holding a press conference to explain its next move.

"Perhaps the best thing we can do for Idaho's citizens is rapidly bring this session to a close," said House Minority leader John Rusche.

A date of adjournment has not yet been set, according to Nikki Karpavich, House minority leadership chief of staff.

"They're still printing bills," she said on Tuesday afternoon.

One major bill that still needs to be heard in the House is the closed primary bill, which would prohibit independent voters from participating in Republican primaries.

Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said she voted against the bill when it came before the Senate on the grounds that it undermines the political process.

"It disenfranchises a large part of our Idaho votership," she said. "Over 30 percent of voters are declared independent, anyone from tea party people to Green Party people."

Stennett said the primaries are already poorly attended, and the parties should encourage participation, not "alienate" voters.

The bill is set to be heard by the full House today, along with two renewable energy bills that Karpavich said would likely be the key issues in the House for the remainder of the session.

She added that the Legislature is tentatively set to adjourn by Thursday. Previous estimates had the session adjourning anywhere from April 1 to the middle of May.

Katherine Wutz:

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