Legislature approves 61-cent increase in cigarette tax
HARTFORD, Conn. -- The state House gave final legislative approval early Thursday to a 61-cent increase in the cigarette tax.
The 75-67 vote, just after 2 a.m., sends the bill to Gov. John G. Rowland, who is expected to sign the measure, which would be the first significant tax increase in the state in seven years.
The proposal would raise the state tax on a pack of cigarettes on April 3 from 50 cents to $1.11, which would be the third-highest in the nation after New York and Washington states.
Rowland proposed the tax increase to help close a two-year budget gap estimated at $1 billion. The measure is expected to generate an estimated $40 million in the current budget year and about $130 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
The tax hike was approved after a day of contentious debate and a series of unusual occurrences - including a rare parliamentary procedure in which opposing senators agreed in writing to cancel out each other's vote.
House Speaker Moira Lyons, D-Stamford, called the tax increase an important step, not only to balance the budget but to save lives. Lyons and other supporters cited statistics showing a 4 percent decrease in smoking for every 10 percent increase in the retail price of cigarettes. Cigarettes cost about $4 per pack in Connecticut.
Lyons also celebrated a political victory, in which she managed to defuse a controversy within her own caucus.
Many House Democrats had said the tax increase should be targeted for anti-smoking programs and children's health. Rowland and other leaders opposed that idea, saying the money should be used to reduce the deficit. An impasse appeared likely until minutes before the final vote.
In a closed-door meeting with fellow Democrats, Lyons agreed to push for increased health spending in upcoming budget talks and find money for anti-smoking programs.
"I applaud the folks who felt strongly about that," Lyons said after the final vote, which came with surprisingly little debate. "I think (Democrats) win because we are a unified caucus."
It was a different story in the Senate. The vote on the cigarette tax marked a significant setback for Senate Majority Leader George Jepsen, a Democratic candidate for governor who had pushed the 65-cent increase but was rebuked by his own caucus.
The Senate rejected the proposed 65-cent increase on a tie vote. The Senate also rejected a plan to extend the tax increase to other tobacco products, including cigars and smokeless tobacco.
Jepsen of Stamford had pushed for the 65-cent increase, saying the additional 4 cents should be targeted for programs to help people quit smoking and stop them from starting.
But even with a 21-15 majority, Jepsen and other Democrats were unable to secure enough votes to approve the higher increase, which was defeated, 17-17. Three Democrats - Brian McDermott of Wallingford, Thomas Gaffey of Meriden and Joan Hartley of Waterbury - voted with 14 Republicans to defeat the amendment at about 10 p.m. Wednesday. Two senators were absent.
The Senate then approved the 61-cent increase, 24-10, at about 10:45 p.m.
Senate Republicans went along with the Republican governor on the 61-cent increase, but they stood against the higher increase, saying the state should not raise taxes to pay for new programs while it faces a deficit.
Jepsen said he was disappointed at the defeat of the 65-cent proposal, which he called "an embarrassment for Connecticut."
The state ranks in the bottom five for anti-tobacco spending and is the only state in New England where smoking is on the rise, Jepsen said.
"As a result of tonight's decision, children will take up smoking in the next few years who otherwise would not have done so," he said. "It's a tragedy that Republican leaders felt that winning the vote was more important than protecting kids."
But Senate Minority Leader Louis DeLuca, R-Woodbury, said Jepsen had no one to blame but himself.
"He should do a better job counting heads in his own caucus," DeLuca said. "They have 21 votes. They could have come in here and voted 10 minutes later. They didn't do it. How does that become our fault?"
Jepsen and other Democrats had proposed the 65-cent hike as a compromise from a 72-cent hike Jepsen had called for on Monday.
But even as a compromise, the 65-cent plan was never a certainty. The vote on the plan was so close that two senators on opposite sides of the issue - who both wanted to leave the chamber - signed a written agreement essentially canceling out each other's vote.
Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, who supports the 65-cent increase, was battling a virus and was home most of the day before being driven to the Capitol about 4 p.m.
Prague never got the chance to vote, however, because Jepsen and other Democratic leaders discovered they did not have the 19 votes needed for approval.
Sen. Catherine Cook, R-Mystic, meanwhile, opposed the 65-cent increase but had to leave for a wake Wednesday night. Cook and Prague then signed a legal document in which they "paired off" to cancel the other's vote.
Pairing off is allowed under Senate rules, but is rarely used. Veteran senators said they could not recall the last time the procedure was invoked.
Prague, in a telephone interview from her home, said she was disappointed that she came into the Capitol from her sick bed, only to be sent home.
"It was just poor planning," she said. "I was a little upset when I got there and nothing was organized."
In another defeat for majority Democrats, the Senate voted 21-13, to defeat a plan to extend the tax increase to cigars, smokeless tobacco and other products. Supporters said it was only fair to apply the higher tax to tobacco products that tend to be used by those with higher incomes than cigarette smokers.
But opponents said the proposal could hurt Connecticut farmers, who grow much of the shade tobacco that is used in cigar wrappers. The tax increase also was opposed by Greenwich-based UST Inc., which produces about three-quarters of the smokeless tobacco sold in the state each year.
Lobbyists for UST, including Rowland confidant Jay Malcynsky, had worked furiously to defeat the tax increase for snuff and other smokeless products.
At $1.11 per pack, the plan would make Connecticut's cigarette tax the third-highest in the country. New York's cigarette tax is now $1.11 per pack, but is scheduled to rise to $1.50 on April 1. Washington's tax is $1.42. The cigarette tax is 76 cents per pack in Massachusetts and $1 per pack in Rhode Island.