While reports such as those out of Iowa and Virginia (see "Budget Fixes Worth Embracing", in this week's Digest) highlight some of the best ways for states to dig themselves out of their current budgetary nightmares, in many cases it appears that the cigarette tax is continuing to hold on to its title as the single most popular tax to increase among the states. Policy advocates and even many legislators are often careful to frame their support of cigarette tax hikes in terms of fighting smoking or reducing health care costs, but in times as desperate as these, it's hard not to suspect that revenue needs may be the driving force. The fact is that revenue from the cigarette tax is almost never sustainable over time because the U.S. smoking population is constantly on the decline. It's therefore difficult to get excited about the cigarette tax as a budget-fix for any period of time beyond the very short-term -- and even then, states should never be excited about raising revenue through such a regressive tax. But in states that have held their cigarette taxes constant at low levels for a number of years, it's also hard to get too upset over such proposals. Five states in particular made news this week in their debates over the cigarette tax: Florida, Mississippi, Oregon, South Carolina, and Utah.
The three states with the most intense cigarette tax debates at the moment are Florida, Mississippi, and Oregon. Florida and Mississippi haven't increased their cigarette tax rates in 18 and 23 years, respectively, and therefore have some of the lowest cigarette tax rates in the nation. Hikes in the range of 50 cents to $1 per pack are being proposed in Florida, while Mississippi's debate appears to be over a range of 24 cents to $1 per pack. In Oregon, the governor recently proposed a 60 cent hike as part of his budget. The intent of that hike is use the new revenue as part of a package to expand health care in the state -- such an arrangement is likely to result in tensions down the road as cigarette revenues fall and health costs continue to rise.
South Carolina provides another example of a state with a cigarette tax debate worth following. In this past year's session, the legislature approved a cigarette tax hike, only to eventually be vetoed by the governor, ostensibly out of concern over linking such an unsustainable revenue source to a permanent expansion of Medicaid. As the appearance of a recent op-ed praising the benefits of hiking SC's lowest-in-the-nation rate suggests, this debate is not yet over.
Utah provides another example of a potential budding cigarette tax debate. With the American Cancer society enthusiastically seeking to capitalize on what appears to be a favorable climate for a cigarette tax hike, one has to expect the idea to pick up steam during discussions over how to close the state's looming budget gap.