Rowland Ups The Ante On Cigarette Tax
Once again knocking his political opponents off balance, Gov. John G. Rowland proposed Thursday to raise the cigarette tax higher and sooner than the plan floated by Democrats in the legislature - the same Democrats whom Rowland has long tagged as tax-and
Instead of the 50-cent per pack increase floated by Democratic leaders in the past month, Rowland called for increasing the tax by 61 cents-up from the current 50 cents. And he also called for instituting the hike at the beginning of April, instead of at the beginning of the next fiscal year in July. In exchange, Rowland wants no spending on new programs and a freeze on spending the surplus of last year.
Rowland, who is expected to run for a third term this year, said, "I don't really consider that a tax increase. A tax increase to me is something that is imposed on everyone." Rowland called his cigarette proposal a "voluntary" tax. One could choose not to smoke, he said.
Rowland also said Thursday that he would back down from his December plan to divert $41 million of tobacco lawsuit settlement money to help close the deficit. The governor was widely criticized for the proposal, since Connecticut is already near the bottom of states when it comes to anti-smoking efforts.
"We're ecstatic," said Kevin Graff, director of the MATCH anti-smoking coalition. The group says that increasing cigarette taxes reduces smoking - especially among teens.
With his moves, Rowland once again seized the initiative on the budget debate, which will likely dominate the legislative session. It also highlights his pragmatism, a quality Connecticut voters apparently like in Rowland, judging from his high approval ratings. But his actions also may underscore his reputation as a politician motivated by expediency.
Rowland, a Republican who first campaigned for governor in 1994 on a pledge to eliminate the state's income tax, opposed a cigarette tax increase proposed by Democrats last year. In an interview Thursday, Rowland said his turnaround on the cigarette tax is in response to the state's budget woes. The increased revenues would help to close a $350 million state budget deficit this year and an estimated $650 million gap next year.
George Pataki, another moderate Republican, has proposed a 39-cent increase in his state's cigarette tax. New York's per-pack tax is already $1.11, more than double Connecticut's 50-cent tax. Last year, Rhode Island increased its cigarette tax to $1.00 per pack.
Surprised Democratic leaders immediately embraced Rowland's proposals, and said the governor's flexibility would increase the chances of a quick budget compromise in the legislative session that begins on Feb. 6.
"I'm much more hopeful than I was two weeks ago for the session," said Senate President pro tem Kevin B. Sullivan, D-West Hartford. "The governor is showing a whole lot more flexibility."
Rowland said he hoped his flexibility and changes of heart would be repaid by Democrats in the form of supporting his plan to not spend the remaining $157 million of last year's budget surplus and by agreeing not to approve new programs or new spending.