A meandering road for Louisiana’s sin tax idea

Theotine "Theo" Ulysse Dardar
June 23, 2009
Diana Benoit Toms
June 25, 2009
Theotine "Theo" Ulysse Dardar
June 23, 2009
Diana Benoit Toms
June 25, 2009

It’s clear now that Louisiana House members don’t want to increase a certain sin tax. But it took a while.

Maneuvering over an increase on tobacco taxes started in March, when Rep. Karen Carter Peterson announced her plan to raise the levy on cigarettes by $1, from the current 38 cents to $1.38 per pack, along with increases on cigars and chewing and pipe tobacco. The New Orleans Democrat said the tax hike would raise $187 million next year, and nearly $1 billion over five years, to help ease proposed health care budget cuts.

Her bill was quickly voted down in the House’s tax committee, but Peterson kept at it.

Next, she filed a second bill that was identical except for the price tag: her new bill said the cigarette tax would go up by 50 cents instead of a full $1.

In arguing for her new bill, Peterson noted that four other states – including neighboring Arkansas and Mississippi – approved tobacco tax increases this year, ranging from 30 cents to $1 per pack. She said tobacco taxes are a natural way to raise state revenue during down economic times.

“The reason for this tremendous movement across the country is simple: states are looking at comprehensive and long-term approaches to address their fiscal crisis,” she said.

She didn’t mention that at least four other state Legislatures – Georgia, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah – rejected cigarette tax hikes this year, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an anti-smoking group.

But Peterson got her 50-cent bill through the same tax committee that rejected the proposed $1-increase with an 8-7 vote.

Opponents in the House then tried to bounce the bill off to different committees, which would have slowed the bill’s progress at best or killed it at worst.

The lead opponent was Rep. Joseph Lopinto, a Metairie Republican who argued the bill should go to the health committee, because lawmakers were spending so much time debating smoking’s harmful effects.

“Are you against a debate on the floor?” Peterson asked. “Are you afraid of a vote?”

“I’m not trying to be an obstructionist, but our rules say instruments pertaining to public welfare shall be referred to the Health and Welfare Committee,” Lopinto said.

Lopinto’s move failed, but then House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, ruled that Peterson’s bill should be sent to the Appropriations Committee because it would create a new special fund to dedicate revenue.

That committee’s schedule would have made it nearly impossible to get the bill through the Legislature by the session’s end tomorrow.

Peterson responded by asking the House to move the bill out of the Appropriations Committee. House members agreed.

Lopinto tried one last time to sidetrack the proposed tax hike with a procedural move, but failed.

So Peterson finally got her House floor vote last week, three months after she announced the plan.

She pitched the bill as a health care plan. She told colleagues that her Louisiana Healthier Families Act would ultimately save money for the state by paying for smoking prevention and cessation programs, thus reducing the number of people needing costly treatment for illnesses caused by tobacco use.

Only a handful of her colleagues saw it that way. The House has a bloc of fiercely anti-tax members, and it didn’t help Peterson’s cause that Gov. Bobby Jindal said all along that he would veto the Peterson bill or any other tax hike.

Because it would increase a tax, Peterson needed support from two-thirds of the House – 70 votes – to get it to the Senate.

And after all the wrangling, she didn’t come close. She got just 45 votes, 25 shy of what she needed.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Simpson covers the La. Capitol for the Associated Press.