The previously defeated renewal of a 4-cent cigarette tax came back to life Monday when it was tacked onto legislation that would dedicate more tobacco settlement dollars to merit-based TOPS scholarships.
The constitutional amendment is a Gov. Bobby Jindal-backed plan to permanently set aside more dollars each year for the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.
By using the Jindal-backed Senate Bill 53 as the vehicle, state Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, revived his cigarette tax renewal that had previously been vetoed by Jindal. The governor has argued that a tax renewal is the same as a tax increase.
Although just a renewal of 4-cents, which collects $12 million annually, the proposal has been one of the session’s most debated and controversial.
Ritchie’s amendment was approved on a 59-40 vote. Last week, 58 House members voted in favor of overriding Jindal’s veto, but 70 votes, or two-thirds support, are needed.
Ritchie’s amendment only required majority support, or 53 “yes” votes.
There was some applause when the vote was announced.
The full constitutional amendment was then easily approved on a 90-12 vote.
Ritchie argued that the amendment just keeps the cigarette pack sales tax at 36 cents.
“We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t concerned about health care and that’s where the money goes,” Ritchie said.
Jindal did not respond to an interview request Monday. But the governor later release a statement saying he is still pleased the TOPS legislation was approved, in spite of the cigarette tax.
“While we are disappointed that the House amended the TOPS bill to include the cigarette tax, we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Jindal stated.
Unlike Ritchie’s original bill, which sent the revenues from the 4-cent renewal to the state general fund, the amendment places the dollars in the state’s Health Excellence Fund, which is filled with interest from tobacco settlement dollars.
State Rep. Jane Smith, R-Bossier City, unsuccessfully argued against Ritchie.
“We need to maintain the integrity of this bill,” Smith said. “This bill is not about a cigarette tax.”
SB53 by state Sen. John Alario, R-Westwego, next moves to the Senate for concurrence of the House amendments.
Rejection of the amendments would send the bill to a conference committee of House and Senate members.
If a constitutional amendment is approved by the Legislature, it will go to the public for a vote Oct. 22.
“If we send it to the people, we won’t be wrong,” Ritchie said.
A constitutional amendment would avoid Jindal’s veto authority.
Alario’s Senate Bill 52, which is the enabling statutory legislation for the constitutional amendment also was amended to include the cigarette tax. The bill was finally approved by a 92-8 vote.
Because the constitutional amendment was based on tobacco settlement dollars, state Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, said he would have ruled Ritchie’s amendment was germane, and thus relevant, to the bill. Arnold was filling in for House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, in the speaker’s chair while Tucker was rallying support for the amendment.
Tucker said the TOPS bill was in “deep trouble” and that the addition of the cigarette tax renewal garnered the legislation several more votes.
Andrew Muhl, government relations director for the American Cancer Society of Louisiana, said it is right to let the public decide the issue on the cigarette tax.
TOPS costs the state $134 million annually. At the state’s public universities, TOPS pays tuition and some fees. Because of anticipated tuition increases this fall, state government would have to pay as much as $150 million or so for TOPS next year.
Jindal’s plan would protect for TOPS $43 million additional dollars — making a total of $58 million available that could not be spent elsewhere. Currently only $15 million is dedicated to TOPS. The rest of the costs for TOPS come from state general fund dollars.
The state receives about $58 million each year from the Tobacco Settlement — 25 percent goes to the Louisiana Fund for health-care expenses and 75 percent goes to the Millennium Trust Fund, which totals $1.38 billion.
The constitutional amendment would cap the Millennium Trust Fund at $1.38 billion, and any funds in excess of that amount will be dedicated toward TOPS.
After the initial $43 million, the plan will increase the dollars by an additional $70 million once the bonds are paid off from 2018 to 2030.
The Millennium Trust Fund allocates money to TOPS, the Education Excellence Fund and the Health Excellence Fund, which would further benefit from Ritchie’s amendment.
Voting FOR Ritchie’s amendment to add the 4-cent renewal to the TOPS legislation (59): Speaker Tucker, Abramson, Anders, Armes, Arnold, Aubert, A. Badon, B. Badon, Baldone, Barras, Barrow, Bishop, Brossett, Burrell, Carmody, Connick, Danahay, Dixon, Doerge, Downs, Edwards, Franklin, Gallot, Gisclair, Greene, Guinn, Hardy, Harrison, Henderson, Hill, Hines, Hoffmann, Honore, G. Jackson, M. Jackson, Johnson, R. Jones, S. Jones, Katz, LaFonta, LeBas, Leger, Ligi, Monica, Montoucet, Moreno, Norton, Pope, Ritchie, Roy, G. Smith, P. Smith, St. Germain, Stiaes, Thibaut, Thierry, Williams, Willmott and Wooton.
Voting AGAINST the Ritchie amendment (40): State Reps. Billiot, Burford, H. Burns, Carter, Champagne, Chandler, Chaney, Cortez, Dove, Ellington, Fannin, Foil, Geymann, Guillory, Hazel, Henry, Hensgens, Howard, Hutter, Huval, Kleckley, Landry, Little, Lopinto, Lorusso, McVea, Morris, Pearson, Ponti, Pugh, Richardson, Robideaux, Schroder, Seabaugh, Simon, Smiley, J. Smith, Talbot, Templet and White.
NOT Voting (6): State Reps. T. Burns, , Cromer, LaBruzzo, Lambert, Nowlin and Richard.
Marsha Shuler of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.