Tobacco tax hike eyed for 2014 state ballot

5:28 PM, Jan 21, 2013   |    comments
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Get ready for another round of tobacco tax wars, California initiative style.

And count three big reasons for a do-over of the electoral skirmish in 2014: the relatively low level of the existing tax, the narrow margin of the vote in 2012, and the fact that it may now be a fight not over bureaucracy and research but rather college tuition.

"I think the right measure, going to the right revenue source is going to be the magic combination," says Democratic strategist Jason Kinney.  "And that's why I think so many people are looking at it."

Kinney is part of a group that includes Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom currently backing an initiative to add $1 per pack to the state tobacco tax, and use the money for college scholarships and financial aid.  An early version of the initiative (PDF) was filed last month.  It would funnel the money, which could be as much as $750 million in its first year, through the California Student Aid Commission.  Its language (no doubt disputed should it ever become law) says the tax revenue would be kept separate from the state's general fund and thus not siphoned off to other programs -- including the constitutional guarantee for K-12 schools and community colleges.

"There's no reason why the dream of college education should be out of reach for any hard working student in California," says Kinney.

And the tobacco tax has looked to be ripe for a potential increase. The increase earmarked for cancer research, last June's Proposition 29, lost by less that 24,000 votes out of more than 5 million cast statewide -- one of the closest initiatives in recent history.

That narrow defeat also came in one of the lowest turnout elections in recent times.  The 2014 election cycle, featuring all statewide offices, is likely to be more popular with voters.

Supporters of the Prop 29 increase were vastly outspent by the Big Tobacco checkbook, opened to the tune of more than $45 million.  Whether the Democratic leaning groups can marshal more money for a 'yes' campaign a second time around, and so soon after the expensive 2012 election cycle, will be a key question.

Big Tobacco, of course, is almost certain to come ready with cash.

"The tobacco industry has shown, time and again, that they are willing to step up and fund any kind of attack," says GOP strategist Aaron McLear.

McLear argues a 2014 campaign would likely debate whether a tobacco tax increase -- which, over time, will likely shrink as fewer Californians decide to smoke -- is a good fit for college scholarships.

Even so, the idea of more help for students and families trying to afford a community college, UC, or CSU education has political potency, a point well made by Gov. Jerry Brown's current barnstorming for a new focus on affordable higher education.

Efforts on a 2014 tobacco tax are still fairly embryonic, and several interest groups are now weighing their own proposals. While numerous statewide polls have found general public support for a hike in 'sin taxes' on things like tobacco and alcohol, initiatives often are twisted and turned by the political forces of what else appears on the same ballot -- and whether voters see enough good in a proposal to outweigh their default skepticism about more money out of their wallets.


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