Should tobacco tax be raised?

Coloradans split on whether Amendment 35 is the answer

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People on both sides of the debate on Amendment 35, a proposed increase in the tobacco tax, agree that Colorado should not be the lowest-ranking state in terms of tariffs on cigarettes. What they disagree about is whether a change in the state constitution is the proper way to achieve a tax increase.

Amendment 35, advanced by an organization called "Citizens for a Healthier Colorado," would raise the excise tax on cigarettes by 64 cents, bringing the total to 84 cents per pack. The increase would place Colorado, currently last in the nation in cigarette tax, close to the middle of the pack. Amendment 35 also would raise the tax on other tobacco products, such as cigars and chewing tobacco, by 20 percent.

Proponents estimate the tax would generate about $175 million annually in new revenue.

The amendment details a split of the $175 million among five health and human services related causes.

Of the total, the greatest share, $80.5 million or 46 percent, would go to expanding the Child Health Plan Plus and Medicaid.

Nineteen percent of the total, or $33.25 million, would be used to provide comprehensive care through community health centers and other clinics that serve the uninsured and medically indigent.

Tobacco education, prevention and cessation programs would receive 16 percent, or $28 million annually, as would programs devoted to early detection and treatment of cancer, cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases.

The remaining 3 percent, or $5.25 million, would go to the state's general fund, old age pension fund and to local governments for health-related expenses.

Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said she worries that if the division of funds among the health organizations mentioned in the amendment proves not to be the right mix, it will be difficult to correct, because the apportionment will have been locked in by a constitutional amendment.

Her Libertarian opponent, Oak Creek Town Board member Mike Kien, said he might vote for Amendment 35 because, as a smoker, he hopes the additional tax will help him kick the habit. However, Kien said he is skeptical about the need to raise the tax because he thinks state attorneys general across America have allowed the millions collected from tobacco settlements to be shifted away from their intended purpose of educating children about tobacco. Because smoking is especially prevalent among poor Americans, Kien sees it as an additional burden on low-income people.

Jennifer Corrigan, a spokeswoman for Amendment 35, said that the health care expenditures in Colorado directly related to tobacco use are $1 billion per year and that every Colorado household bears a portion of that cost.

State Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park, said he is wary of another amendment that would tie up a revenue stream and potentially reduce the Legislature's ability to balance the budget. White said the Taxpayers Bill of Rights and Amendment 23, which funds public education indexed to inflation, already have created a budget crisis in the state.

Corrigan said the proponents of Amendment 35 took care with its language to avoid some of the problems created by other amendments.

"In times of an economic downturn, the Legislature can vote by a two-thirds majority to use some of the money to plug holes in health-related," areas of the state budget, Corrigan said. She added that the amendment is immune from TABOR.

White said raising tobacco taxes is an example of a decision that should be made by legislators, as representatives of their constituents.

Corrigan said voters have become wary of the Legislature's past tendencies to divert funds away from the purpose they were originally intended for, as they have done with the proceeds from the Colorado Lottery.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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