States Look to Cigarettes as Way to Cut Big Deficits
HARTFORD, Jan. 27 â€” Nowadays, cigarettes are not just for smoking. In New York, Connecticut and more than a dozen other states facing budget deficits, cigarettes and other tobacco products, ignored for years by legislatures with plenty of cash, are once
Following a routine playing out in state capitals around the country, Connecticut's governor, John G. Rowland, a Republican, on Thursday proposed (reluctantly, he said) a 61-cent increase in the state's 50-cent-per- pack tax. That increase, 11 cents more than state Democrats had asked for this year, would provide an estimated $260 million to help ease a $1 billion projected budget shortfall over the next two fiscal years.
"I don't really think it's a tax," Mr. Rowland told reporters. "It's a voluntary tax."
In Albany a week earlier, Gov. George E. Pataki, also a Republican, proposed narrowing a $5.1 billion projected gap in the budget year beginning April 1 by raising $251 million from a 39-cent increase to the cigarette tax, which is now $1.11 a pack. The average cigarette tax in the country is 45 cents.
Governors â€” Republicans, no less â€” trumpeting plans to raise taxes is not what most voters would normally expect, especially in a recession. But in the world of tax increases, cigarettes offer unique advantages that make them almost irresistible to politicians, even those up for re-election in November, like Govs. Rowland and Pataki.
First, there are clear health advantages to making cigarettes less affordable, particularly for teenagers, whose smoking habits are highly influenced by the cost. Also, cigarette taxes hit only people who smoke, a minority, thus limiting the political damage. Polls of dedicated smokers even suggest that many welcome higher cigarette taxes as an incentive to quit.
"Voters don't see a cigarette tax increase the same way they see other tax increases, because they see it as a legitimate public health tool," said Kevin P. Graff, the executive director of Mobilized Against Tobacco for Children's Health in West Hartford.
According to a poll taken in May by the Alliance for a Healthy New England, a coalition of health care providers, consumer groups and tobacco control organizations, 66 percent of 400 registered voters in Connecticut said they would support a 50-cent cigarette tax increase. Most smokers polled also said they would support a tax increase, Mr. Graff said.
Cigarette tax increases are "politically the easiest thing to do," said Fred Carstensen, the director of the University of Connecticut's Center for Economic Analysis. "There are other changes that you could do, but they would be controversial, and it would be harder to persuade the Legislature to accept."
Though Mr. Carstensen referred to Connecticut, the idea is catching on with Republican, Democratic and independent governors and lawmakers in about 15 other states whose budgets have been weakened by a sputtering economy and weak capital gains.
In Oregon on Wednesday, for instance, Gov. John A. Kitzhaber, a Democrat, called for raising the 68-cent-per-pack cigarette tax by 30 cents and also increasing taxes on beer and wine. In Kansas on Thursday, Gov. Bill Graves, a Republican, proposed increasing the state's 24-cent-per-pack cigarette tax by 65 cents to help close a $426 million budget gap next year. Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, an independent, recently proposed increasing the 48-cent tax to 77 cents a pack.
Bumping up the tax is gaining popularity even in states where it has long remained well below the national average. In Indiana, which faces a projected $1 billion budget shortfall by July 2003, Gov. Frank O'Bannon, a Democrat, is backing a plan to raise the 15-cent tax by 39.5 cents a pack (he had initially proposed a 50-cent increase), as well as collecting higher taxes on riverboat casinos. And in Oklahoma, the state health commissioner is advocating pushing up the 23-cent tax to $1.23.
Lawmakers in Arizona, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri and Nebraska are also considering raising their taxes on cigarettes.
On the West Coast, where public sentiment is decidedly against smoking â€” undercover sheriff's deputies in California have begun arresting smokers for violating a state ban on lighting up in restaurants and bars â€” raising cigarette taxes has long been viewed as a relatively easy choice in tough times.
Washington State has the highest cigarette tax in the nation, at $1.425 a pack. Virginia, a major tobacco- growing state, has the lowest, just 2.5 cents a pack.
While Mr. Pataki and Mr. Rowland, whose party portrays itself as the champion of lower taxes, are advocating hefty cigarette tax increases, Gov. James E. McGreevey of New Jersey, a Democrat whose party is often seen as partial to tax increases, said Thursday that he was determined not to raise any taxes, including the 80-cent cigarette tax.
That choice has a clear historical motivation. In 1989, Gov. Jim Florio, a Democrat, enraged voters and later lost his re-election bid after pushing a $2.8 billion increase in various taxes through the Legislature. Last fall, Mr. McGreevey became the first Democrat since Mr. Florio to be elected governor.
Given that history, according to a top McGreevey administration official, the potential political cost of raising any taxes, even on cigarettes, would not be worth the revenue.
Even outside Virginia, Kentucky and the Carolinas, all major tobacco producers, some states continue to hold the line on cigarette taxes as budget deficits grow.
In New Mexico, a group that works and lobbies on behalf of families said that increasing the state's cigarette tax by 60 cents over three years would generate about $50.4 million, but the idea did not gain wide support in Santa Fe.
And last year in Vermont, the only state not required by law to produce a balanced budget, Gov. Howard Dean, a physician, watched lawmakers shoot down his proposal to raise the cigarette tax by 44 cents, to $1.11. On Tuesday, in a speech to the Vermont Legislature, Dr. Dean called smoking "a public health emergency," adding, "The lack of an adequate cigarette tax is an emergency for all Vermonters who depend on the state for health care."
But mindful of last year's defeat, Dr. Dean said that despite a large budget gap, he did not intend to try to get more money from cigarettes this year.