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SALT LAKE CITY -- Talk of a tobacco tax is heating up at the Utah Capitol. Tuesday, the House of Representatives moved a bill to increase the tax by a dollar a pack of cigarettes.
Given the state's financial situation, it's really not a surprise that the tobacco tax is moving forward.
The House bill would raise about $43 million in the first year -- money that could go a long way in shoring up programs that are facing serious cuts this year.
House leadership decided to bring the bill back to life at lunchtime Tuesday after it had been defeated last Friday.
Utah has the third lowest tobacco tax among the eight mountain states, ahead of only Wyoming and Idaho.
The reason is that everyone is getting a sharper image of the budget shortfall and the serious cuts that could be coming to everything from Medicaid programs to education and public safety.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said, "We have the votes in the House right now to pass it out. So we're sitting good, we don't have to go out and ask people to sign on. Based on the revenues, we've been able to keep it whole; there's no earmarks in the bill. And the intent is to use the money in health and human services, which is where the cost of the smokers is coming out of."
Still, it's likely that health programs will not be the sole beneficiary of the tax money. There are people from a number of programs who are literally begging for the extra money.
Lawmakers and the governor have made strong statements against any new tax increase, but many in leadership support this tax for health reasons.
Gov. Gary Herbert says he never absolutely said he would veto a tobacco tax, but will wait until a proposal passes both the House and Senate before deciding.
The bottom line is, a tobacco tax is moving forward.
Besides the rainy day fund, the tobacco tax is seen as the only new source of revenue available in this tight budget year.
Lawmakers remain divided
The reinstated tobacco tax bill was passed by a small margin of only four votes and the issue is still hotly contested. A lot of lawmakers are still insisting that such a tax as a tobacco tax is bad public policy. On the other hand, there are strong feelings from other lawmakers who believe that this is a health issue. Besides, they say, the state needs the money desperately this year.
The revenues from this tax would go into the general fund under the current proposal and be used to plug budget holes. But despite the state's desperate need of funds, passing this does go against that no-new-tax sentiment that a lot of elected officials have.
Rep. Stephen Sandstrom , R-Orem, said, "I've made a commitment not to raise taxes, and when I say not raise taxes, it means every tax possible I will not raise."
Rep. Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley City, voted no on the tobacco tax. He posed the questions, "Should a legislator be true to his word? Can we trust those we elect to do what they said what they would do, even if the winds of change occur? That's a very difficult question that each legislator has to answer personally."
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, is the sponsor of the tobacco tax bill. When discussed the health issues associated with tobacco, Ray said, "If a program is costing the state money, we need to pay for it, we need for people to pay for their own way, and this is one way that they are looking at doing that."
The whole issue is about to put the governor in an awkward spot himself a no-new-taxer. He is currently being thanked on a pro-tobacco website, which claims that he is actually going to veto the tax. In fact, his spokesperson said that's not true, that the governor has not said that he would veto it but leave the door open.
Many people were waiting to see what would happen in the House. The bill now moves to the Senate, where there was another version of the tobacco tax increase that did not pass earlier. But the idea is something a lot of lawmakers are finally warming up to.