Bill would increase cigarette tax to $1

A proposed law filed Friday would raise the price of a pack of cigarettes in Kentucky by 70 cents.

If passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor, House Bill 443 would raise the cigarette tax to $1, up from 30 cents. It would also cause a rise in the price of smokeless tobacco products that has not yet been determined, said state Rep. David Watkins, D-Henderson, who filed the bill.

Watkins said students at state universities, which are facing 12 percent cuts in the governor’s proposed budget, should call or write their legislators to advocate a cigarette tax increase instead of higher tuition or student fees.

“I think students should get up in arms,” Watkins said.

A tax increase of 70 cents per pack would raise $200 million a year, which would help relieve cuts to higher-education funding, Watkins said.

While there is no denying cigarettes are unhealthy, Gov. Steve Beshear would not support a cigarette tax increase at any level, said spokeswoman Vicki Glass yesterday.

“He believes Kentuckians are taxed enough as it is,” Glass said.

The tax increase will not pass without the support of the governor, said state Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville.

“Whether that’s good policy or not, I don’t know,” Buford said. “I would support whatever would stop our young individuals from smoking.”

Watkins called a cigarette tax increase a “double whammy,” raising much-needed income for Kentucky and cutting down on the number of young people who start smoking.

“We talk about AIDS, we talk about all of these horrible diseases,” Watkins said. “Tobacco causes horrible diseases.”

Beyond the possibility of a veto by the governor, Buford said important Senate races going on throughout the state could hinder the proposed cigarette tax hike. A tax increase might cause voters to change their minds in a close Senate race, so politicians may be unlikely to support it, he said.

Rep. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, said she supports an increase in the cigarette tax, although she said $1 may be too high. A 70-cent increase is just a preliminary figure, said Stein, one of the bill’s 13 co-sponsors.

“Your reach should always exceed your grasp,” Stein said. “That’s what we have here.”

On Tuesday, Beshear released his proposed state budget for the 2008-10 biennium. The budget projects a $580 million drop in revenues in the first year of the biennium, and a $306 million drop the next.

If Beshear’s budget were approved by the state legislature, funding for higher education would be cut $160 million in the 2008-09 school year and stay at that level in 2009-10.