Usually, the days before the annual session of the Louisiana Legislature have the expectant atmosphere of spring break in Destin, Florida.
Any other year, the common sight around the State Capitol is of laughing legislators carrying boxes from their luxury SUVs to their apartments in the historic Pentagon barracks.
This time, however, the mood is more somber as legislators have only 59 days, starting Monday, to close a $1.6 billion hole in the budget. The Legislature’s economist, Greg Albrecht, says he can’t recall ever seeing as many bills filed that purport to raise revenues.
Almost none of those measures use the “T-word.” Instead, they “refine” definitions or “address” collections or “convert” refundable tax credits. Make no mistake: Somebody will end up paying more, regardless of the tortured rhetoric.
That’s why the nine bills involving cigarette taxes are so refreshing. Almost alone among the thousand or so measures to be considered, all of the tobacco legislation straight-forwardly says taxes are going up for cigarette smokers.
It’s likely to be the only “tax” increase to be called such that lawmakers pass this session.
Louisiana’s 36 cents per pack — second lowest in the country, less even than North Carolina, where most cigarettes are made — likely will increase to somewhere between $1.04 per pack and $1.86, if the legislation is guidance.
A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistic says only 20.5 percent of the adults in this state smoke.
The first challenge in any quest for higher taxes is the “not me” test. Because only 1 in 5 adults will pay the tax, that would seem to indicate the first hurdle has been passed.
More importantly, unlike in years past, Gov. Bobby Jindal says he’s open to increasing the tobacco tax, provided it’s offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget.
The administration wants to send the proceeds of a cigarette tax, generally, to higher education and health care. Their plan is so complex that even Rube Goldberg would find it challenging. But the plan is OK with the anti-tax advocates at Americans for Tax Reform, on whom Jindal relies for advice.
State Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, on the other hand, would give the money to local and parish governments to replace the proceeds of the inventory tax, which would be cut a comparable amount, thereby achieving the “revenue-neutral” status that Jindal requires.
Other bills focus more on where the money would go, rather than fretting about how revenues can be balanced with spending cuts.
House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, in House Bill 487, hikes the tax to $1.08 per pack and would send the $165 million raised to specific higher education and health care programs via a trust fund. Another measure, House Bill 427, by state Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, would feed the proceeds into the state treasury, also from a special trust fund. The dean of cigarette taxes, Democratic Rep. Harold Ritchie, a Bogalusa funeral director and smoker for almost a half-century, has tried and failed repeatedly over the years to raise cigarette taxes.
He was optimistic after a news conference last week in which a coalition of health care advocates rallied behind his latest legislation, which would increase the per pack tax to $1.54, and the retail price per pack well north of $6 — out of reach for most youngsters. His tax proposal would raise $240 million for the state general fund.
Back in June 2011, Ritchie tried to renew 4 cents of the cigarette tax. Even though it passed the House with a two-thirds vote, the governor vetoed. More than a dozen representatives flipped, and the override attempt failed.
Then-House Speaker Jim Tucker, a Terrytown Republican who often bucked the governor, came up with a face-saving solution. He attached the renewal to a proposed change in the state constitution.
The governor can’t sign bills on constitutional amendments. Those measures need approval from two-thirds of the Legislature and a majority of the voters. It got both, so today, enshrined in the state constitution, pretty near where “We, the people of Louisiana, grateful to Almighty God” protects individual rights, including the freedom to “hunt, fish and trap,” is the renewal of 4 cents of the tax on a pack of cigarettes.
Given the support the cigarette tax had in the past with most of these same legislators, and now that Jindal is not flat-opposed, Ritchie says, this could be the best chance yet to increase the state’s cigarette taxes.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and he is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.