Mrs. Basha wants 80Â¢ tobacco tax for kids
PHOENIX â€” The owners of an Arizona supermarket chain want voters to boost cigarette taxes by 80 cents a pack to pay for early childhood development programs.
Backers of an initiative drive kicking off today hope the tax will raise $150 million a year. Members of a special board would use the proceeds to fill "unmet needs" in programs for youngsters ages 5 and under, with some of the money specifically earmarked for children in poor families.
The initiative is the brainchild of Nadine Mathis Basha, a member of the state Board of Education. Mathis Basha and her husband, Eddie, who own the grocery chain bearing the family name, also are putting up both personal and business funds to hire people to get 122,612 signatures by July to qualify it for the November ballot.
Mathis Basha said the process, including advertising to gain voter support, will cost at least $1 million.
The idea, she said, comes from her own experience with small children. Aside from having a master's degree in early-childhood education, she taught school before setting up a firm that helps employers develop child-care programs for workers.
She said she found early is better.
"The brain is nearly 90 percent developed by the age of 3," she said. But she said not every child has the experiences necessary in those early years to enter school ready to learn.
"There is no funding for kids 0 through 5," Mathis Basha said. "And I really believe the Legislature, given their past voting record, this would not be something they would support."
Mathis Basha said that's why she is taking the issue directly to voters.
What would be funded will vary by community.
Under the proposal, the new state board will form regional councils, all of which would determine the needs in their own communities and then review applications by public and private organizations for funding to fill those needs.
That could be quality child care for working parents, she said. But it also might be providing more health screenings for infants, educating parents about early childhood formation and teaching pediatricians to recognize developmental problems in children.
If the plan approved, the state tax on a pack of cigarettes would hit $1.98 a pack. And it could reach an even $2: An unrelated initiative to ban smoking in public places, also being circulated for next year's ballot, includes a 2-cent-a-pack levy to fund enforcement.
Mathis Basha acknowledged she chose the tobacco tax for political reasons: It raises the right amount of money and "this is what we know will pass." Campaign consultant Steve Roman said other options, like higher sales or income taxes, did not poll as well.
A 2004 voter-approved measure requires all new programs to provide their own funding source. That measure also says if collections are insufficient, the Legislature need not make up the difference.
But she said she isn't worried the higher tax will result in fewer smokers and insufficient dollars for her programs.
"If there comes a time in the state where there are no more smokers, we're going to be really delighted to take on the task of finding a new revenue stream," she said.
There are advantages to having each region determine its own needs, versus a one-size-fits-all approach, she said.
"It could be that you have a population of Hispanic mothers that really don't like to use out-of-home care," she said. At the same time, she continued, there is evidence that many Hispanic children enter kindergarten not ready to learn.
She said some groups may put together grant programs to help those mothers help their own children improve their vocabulary and have the skills they need to succeed in school.