This state needs to raise tobacco taxes. For a state as properly focused on health as California, the fact that we have unusually low such taxes is downright weird. We should be well above the national average in our level of taxation.
So why not? Part of the trouble is the massive opposition from tobacco companies to such taxes. But another part of the problem involves the tactics of advocates for this tax increase. They just can’t seem to help themselves.
Instead of sending such money to the general fund, they keep writing ballot initiatives that reserve tax money for a few cherished programs – that are backed by the people who back the measure. This is ballot-box budgeting, with a whiff of pay-to-play. Back an initiative to raise taxes, and get money for your programs.
This tactic helped sink Prop 29, a ballot initiative that would have raised taxes on cigarettes – but would have devoted the money to a host of different funds to fight different diseases. Among its backers was the sports cheat Lance Armstrong. While the tax remained popular with voters, the initiative lost – because of tobacco company opposition and because of concerns about how they money would be spent.
Now comes another attempt, via a tobacco initiative that could be headed for the 2014 ballot. This is less blatant of a ballot-box budgeting attempt. And the initiative does allow the legislature to make alterations – albeit with the caveat that it would create new legislative supermajority requirements for such amendments (2/3 for certain kinds of amendments, a 4/5 vote for others) in a state that already has too many legislative supermajorities.
But this is still bad budget policy. The new tax money goes to a “trust fund” to focus on anti-tobacco programs. It’s this sequestering of funds that makes it so difficult to manage the state budget. Particular favored funds and programs have plenty of money – while the broad interests and programs funded via the general fund are starved. That starvation continues, even at a moment when budget surpluses are projected.
Since it’s only November, it’s not too late for backers of this tax to reconsider – and re-file a tobacco tax initiative that would simply send all the money from the tax to the general fund. That way, the money could be put to its highest and best use.
The backers will likely raise political objections; they’ll say that the measure can be attacked as giving money to politicians. But the measure is going to be attacked by the tobacco people in any event. And the legislature and governor are about as popular now as they’re going to get. So why not get the policy right—and give California the clean tobacco tax hike that it deserves?