From the Arkansas Statehouse...

Tobacco-tax supporters win round one.

In Cigarette Tax on 5 February 2009 at 5:08 pm

In its most anticipated meeting of the session to date, the House of Representatives this afternoon narrowly approved HB1204 increasing the statewide tax on tobacco. The measure attracted 75 yes votes — the exact number needed to raise the tax.

House Speaker Robbie Wills, one of the bill’s most vocal supporters, had repeated over the course of this week that there would be enough votes for passage. But this afternoon it emerged that the House leadership only became certain of success last night, when Rep. Garry Smith decided to switch his vote in favor of the bill.

After the vote, Rep. Smith said that he made up his mind yesterday evening while driving to Fayetteville for an Arkansas Razorbacks basketball game. By 7 p.m., he had come to his decision.

“It was not just District 7 I voted for,” said Smith in reference to his Camden-area district. “It was 2.9 million people in the state of Arkansas.”

Leadership of opposition to the bill professed surprise at Smith’s vote. “I thought all along he was a hard no,” said Rep. Bryan King, who held a press conference against the measure on Tuesday.

For those not privy to the inside baseball beforehand, the vote had more than a whiff of drama. Two packed galleries watched the proceeding, which was gaveled to order at one point when opponents tried to shout down a speaker at the podium.

Rep. Greg Reep, lead sponsor of the bill in the house, gave a speech on the floor emphasizing the health benefits the tax increase would provide, including a trauma system, services for the elderly, community health centers and an expansion of ARKids coverage to 8,000 new children.

Rep. Reep drew laughs from some members when he said he was a fiscal conservative. When he argued that the state had balanced the budget, a representative opposing the tax increase yelled, “It’s the law!” in reference to the balanced-budget mandate in the Arkansas Constitution. Rep. Wills called for quite and chastised the shouter.

(Read on for more on the vote.)

Speeches against the bill followed by Rep. King and Rep. Frank Glidewell. Rep. Wills and Rep. Billy Gaskill spoke in favor.

Rep. Glidewell said the tax would be unfair to those smokers who “have tried to quit this evil and filthy addiction to no avail.”

Rep. Gaskill, a noted smoker, retorted in his speech that smokers should “just quit.” He said Arkansans cannot go to the Memphis, TN, trauma center forever, and that it’s time for Arkansas to have its own system.

In a restrained and dispassionate speech, Rep. Wills also invoked the Memphis center. He mentioned that Dr. Trent Pierce, who was the victim of a car bomb in West Memphis yesterday, is currently being treated there. He asked what would have happened had the incident occurred in a different part of Arkansas. He also emphasized the health provisions the tax increase would pay for.

Rep. King sustained his anti-tax calls of earlier this week. “One thing I don’t agree with is raising taxes in this environment,” he said. He also expressed skepticism that the tax hike will bring in as much money as supporters say it will.

Six Republicans and one Green Party member joined 68 Democrats in voting for the bill. The only Democrats not to vote for the bill were Rep. Pam Adcock, Rep. Stephanie Flowers, and Rep. J.R. Rogers.

During debate on the floor, Rep. Flowers asked why the bill sent money to general revenue instead of earmarking it for specific healthcare purposes.

Rep. King had similar complaints after the vote. Repeating accusations he made earlier this week that the bill’s supporters were making ‘backroom deals,’ Rep. King said, “If we’re going to spend all this money, let’s put it in special revenue.”

Rep. Reep denied that was a feasible option and said there should be some flexibility in spending. “Apparently they don’t understand the budget process,” he said. “If you put it in special revenue, it’s locked up there.”

The bill now goes to the Senate, where the scuffling will start anew.

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