As Gov. John Bel Edwards and the state Senate wait … and wait, and wait … for House members to finally vote on many of the tax measures that the state needs to plug its vast midyear budget shortfall, a stalled tobacco tax increase stands out as a sign of the divided times.
In theory, raising tobacco taxes is one of the easiest revenue-enhancing votes for lawmakers to take. Polls show that voters are more open to the idea than to just about any other increased levies — probably because many of them don’t smoke, and the ones who do know they shouldn’t. Louisiana’s tax rate on tobacco products has historically been among the lowest in the nation. Public health advocates see higher tobacco taxes as a two-fer, a way to raise money to treat smoking-related ailments and a deterrent to the behavior itself. And the tobacco industry is neutral on House Bill 14, which would raise the cigarette tax by 22 cents to $1.08 a pack, and bring in an estimated $16 million in the waning months of this fiscal year which ends June 30. The increase would add $46 million next year.
Yet with less than a week before the special session ends, the House keeps putting the vote off as it waits for the Senate to act on a series of deep proposed spending cuts, to the growing frustration of Edwards and others hoping to avert major damage to health care and higher education.
About the best explanation for the curious delay is that those who are holding back are still more focused on gamesmanship than on solving the state’s dire budget problem.
This isn’t the first time a Louisiana pol has used this tax as a means to a political end. Former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s first big move to preserve his pure anti-tax record for Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist came in 2011, when he vetoed a bill to renew four cents of the tax. His stated reason was that keeping the tax at the same low rate rather than letting it drop by four pennies would have been a tax increase. And dammit, he just wasn’t going to sign a tax increase.
Then last year, as the budget collapsed around him, Jindal reversed himself and backed an actual increase in the tobacco tax. So much for principle — or for any principle other than self-preservation.
Which should be a lesson to those House members who are still balking at this year’s proposal. Jindal’s maneuver didn’t get him anywhere at all, and resistance now is equally futile. So might as well go ahead, bite the bullet and take the vote. About the only thing they have to lose is a bargaining chip.
‘Grace notes’ is a daily feature by Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace. To read more of her content, including her full columns, click here.