Political candidates who gathered for a forum at the Routt County Courthouse this week praised the goals of proposed Amendment 35 but questioned the wisdom of changing the state's constitution to raise the cigarette tax.
"It's a wise use of money," State Rep Al White, R-Winter Park, said. "But we are creating an additional constitutional amendment, which further locks up the legislature's ability to budget."
Amendment 35 would raise the taxes on a pack of cigarettes by 20 cents to 84 cents. The resulting revenue would be divided among funding the Child Health Plan Plus ($80.5 million), health centers for the medically indigent, tobacco education and prevention and treatment of cancer. A small amount of the money, about $5.25 million annually, would go to the state's general fund, old age pension fund and local governments for health-related expenses.
Jennifer Corrigan, a spokeswoman for Amendment 35, told the candidates and a gathering of child-care professionals that passage of the tax increase would change Colorado's rank in the nation in terms of the tobacco tax from 49th to 24th. She reminded them that health care expenditures in Colorado directly related to tobacco use cost $1 billion per year and that every Colorado household bears a portion of that expense.
Proponents say that at a time when 700,000 Coloradans lack access to basic health care, tobacco use makes health insurance more expensive. They estimate that 30 children a day become addicted to cigarettes.
Candidates for Routt County Board of Commissioners and the state Legislature have grown wary of constitutional amendments as a tool for policy making. The legislature is struggling with a budget crisis exacerbated by two amendments. The first is the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, which requires legislators to return budget surpluses to the taxpayers in the form of tax refunds. The second is Amendment 23, which ties increases in state funding for public schools to inflation.
In the soft economy of the past three years, the demands of those two amendments are leaving the Colorado Legislature with increasingly less money to fund other programs.
Jay Fetcher, Democratic candidate for Senate District 8, came the closest to supporting the amendment, but he said he wasn't certain whether he would vote for it himself. Like the other candidates, he is worried about the constitutional implications.
"We need something," Fetcher said. "I think the voters should have a chance at it."
State Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, said he also worries about the conflicts that can be created by amendments, but he has another concern. He thinks the combined effects of court mandated tobacco settlements and increasing taxes could put some of the tobacco companies out of business. His concern is that when they go out of business, the funds that state health programs have come to depend on will dry up. Taylor said he is interested in studying "securitization," in which governments trade their ongoing payments from tobacco companies for a smaller lump sum payment.
County Commissioner Doug Monger deplored that Colorado currently ranks near the bottom of the list in terms of the tobacco tax, but was reluctant about the constitutional amendment process.
"I support raising the tax," Monger said. "It's ludicrous that we would be 49th on a sin tax like that." His opponent in Commissioner District 2, Jeff Fry, said he hasn't had a chance to study Amendment 35 and declined to take a position.
County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said she worries that if the division of funds among the various health organizations mentioned in the amendment proves not be the right mix, it will be difficult to correct.
Her Libertarian opponent, Oak Creek town board member Mike Kien, did not attend the forum because of his job. Reached by telephone later, he said he might vote for Amendment 35 because, as a smoker himself, he hopes the additional tax will help him kick the habit. However, Kien said he is skeptical of the need to raise the tax because he thinks attorneys general across America have allowed the millions collected from tobacco settlements to be shifted away form their intended purpose of educating children about smoking. Because smoking is especially prevalent among poor Americans, Kien sees it as an additional burden on low-income people.
Proposed Amendment 35 is significantly different from Amendment 23, Corrigan said. Instead of tying up portions of the state's general funds, it creates a new source of funds, she said.
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