Leader Blues

Monday, January 26, 2009

EDITORIAL>>Big tobacco fights tax

The cigarette industry, which keeps a gaggle of Arkansas lobbyists on contract, brought in the big boys this week to begin a full-court press against the cigarette tax. Now we will see whether Governor Beebe, who gets everything he wants in the legislature, is finally overmatched. Letís hope not.

A corporate team from Altria Group, formerly known as Philip Morris, jetted in from Richmond, Va., and began the round of newspaper editorial offices and other opinion outposts to make the case that a 56-cent-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax would hurt poor people. The companies are not concerned that the tax might nudge people to quit smoking and reduce tobacco profits, you understand, but only with the plight of the poor.

Altria, R. J. Reynolds American and Lorillard Tobacco Co. have their hands full this year. Many states are raising tobacco taxes, a few of them like Arkansas to improve health services and others to supplement falling general revenues. Congress is raising the federal excise tax by 59 cents a pack.

Word yesterday was that Dick Armey, the former Republican leader of the U. S. House of Representatives and a corporate shill both before and after leaving Congress, is coming to Little Rock to fight the tax. He is the spokesman for an outfit called FreedomWorks, which works to keep taxes low on corporations.

The tax bill is to be introduced early next week. The revenues, estimated to be about $85 million a year, would establish a network of trauma centers around the state to provide emergency medical care and expand a variety of medical and mental health services, including health insurance for more children. The governor strongly supports it, as do the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president pro tempore of the Senate.

Because of the political clout behind the tax and its universally popular benefits, passage ought to be assured. But under Arkansasí perverse Constitution, this is one tax that requires the votes of three-fourths of the members of both houses. Nine of 135 members of the legislature can block it or otherwise dictate tax policy. Passage will require a powerful demonstration of public support for the tax.

The tobacco lobbyists shed fake tears for the poor who would pay the tax. It is true that the tax is regressive because people of low incomes are more likely to smoke. But the best reason to support the tax is not for the expansion of medical services but because it may cause hundreds of thousands of people to quit smoking and deter youngsters from starting the habit.

Tobacco is the largest single contributor to public health costs in Arkansas. It is in that way the fairest tax of them all.