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Senate passes $1 cigarette tax hike early today

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DES MOINES — Democrats pushed a $1 cigarette tax increase through the Iowa Senate early this morning after dismissing stubborn opposition from critics who charged the move is more about grabbing dollars than saving lives.

The bill, which would boost the tax from 36 cents per pack to $1.36, cleared the Senate on a 34-14 vote. The outcome is a major victory for anti-smoking advocates and Gov. Chet Culver, who campaigned aggressively for the increase.

Passage just after midnight sends the bill to the House, where debate is expected next week.

“It’s been a long day coming,’ said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, the bill’s floor-manager. He argued the measure would push thousands to quit smoking and provide dollars for health care programs. “For too many Iowans, it’s already too late.”

Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, voted yes but said he has struggled with the notion of taxing his constituents.

“This isn’t about the next campaign … This is about getting people to quit smoking,” Dotzler said. “I’m going against some friends because I want them to stop.”

But Republicans criticized the bill as a ploy to increase state spending.

GOP critics tried to replace the tax hike with a plan to boost the minimum price retailers can charge for cigarettes by $1. The plan, Republicans argued, would make cigarettes more expensive without collecting more tax revenue from smokers.

Sen. Larry McKibben, R-Marshalltown, argued that the proposal would discourage smoking without “growing government.”

“Is it about health or is it about spending?” McKibben asked. “I would submit it’s about spending.”

Democrats, who control the Senate, argued that it’s about both. They shot down the Republican proposal on a 31-17 vote.

Supporters of the bill insisted the $127.6 million that would be raised next year by the tax increase will help cover the $300 million the state’s Medicaid program spends on treating smoking-related illnesses.

Democrats want to spend new tobacco dollars on an array of health care programs, including expanded health care for children and low-income parents.

“All the money raised by this tax will go to health care,” Mc Coy said.

The skirmish over health versus spending was among several partisan fights as Democrats slowly pushed the cigarette tax increase toward passage.

Anti-tobacco advocates were prepared to wait. It’s been 16 years since lawmakers last increased the cigarette tax in Iowa, which now has the eighth-lowest rate in the nation.

Polls have shown broad support for a tax increase that most Iowans won’t pay. The latest tobacco use survey by the Iowa Department of Public Health shows that roughly 18 percent of Iowans smoke.

Backers insist the tax hike will prompt thousands of adult smokers to kick the habit and discourage youngsters from starting. The anti-smoking group Tobacco Free Iowa estimates that 20,000 adults will give up smoking and 38,000 kids won’t take up tobacco if the tax jumps by $1.

The Legislative Services Agency estimates that cigarette demand will drop 19 percent if the tax is increased. It also estimates that sales will jump 21 percent in the weeks before the hike takes effect.

Backers hope the bill can clear the Legislature in time to put the tax increase in place by April 1.

“I think our action tonight will be one of the most significant public health improvements that we’re going to see in a very long time,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City.

Critics of the bill, mostly Republicans, have expressed doubts that all the proceeds from the tax hike will go to health care programs. They also worry that the tax increase is too steep and will hurt retailers along Iowa’s borders with neighboring states that charge lower rates.

Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin will each have lower tax rates if Iowa raises its cigarette tax by $1.

Republicans offered several other failed amendments seeking to raise the legal age for smoking, curtail access to tobacco, give tax credits to small businesses and other changes. Most were scrapped through procedural rulings.

Sen. Mark Zieman, R-Postville, created one of the few bipartisan moments of the night when he offered an amendment that would have raised the cigarette tax $5 per pack. It was defeated on a 40-8 vote.

“Now, I’m not the brightest light bulb in the box, however I know if $1 (per pack) makes 20 percent quit, there’s a pretty good chance $5 is going to make everybody quit,” said Zieman, who opposed the $1 hike.

House debate is next. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines, said it said looks “increasingly likely” the House also will approve a $1 hike.

“What is for sure is that we will have an increase in the cigarette tax. It remains uncertain, although less and less uncertain, what that amount will be,” McCarthy said.

NORTH IOWA ROLL CALL:

Voting yes

Sen. Amanda Ragan, D-Mason City

Sen. Rich Olive, D-Story City

Sen. Thurman Gaskill, R-Corwith

— Todd Dorman can be reached at (515) 243-0138 or at todd.dorman@lee.net

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