Pass Gov. Sam Brownback’s cigarette tax increase for a healthier Kansas

Kansas lawmakers should approve a proposed cigarette tax increase to improve the health of the state. And, yes, to raise more revenue.
Kansas lawmakers should approve a proposed cigarette tax increase to improve the health of the state. And, yes, to raise more revenue. The Kansas City Star

Hunting for cash to balance the struggling Kansas budget, Gov. Sam Brownback has proposed a $1.50-per-pack cigarette tax increase that’s opposed by many Republican legislators, tobacco companies and convenience store owners.

But Brownback’s plan is reasonable. Higher tobacco taxes would have several benefits.

Most importantly, they would provide a way to improve the health of thousands of Kansans. New taxes would make smoking more costly, force some adults to stop the habit and prevent many young people from taking it up.

The governor’s approach also would reduce the huge financial burden that smokers place on health care systems — which nonsmokers help pay for through general taxes and health care insurance. As one example, Kansans for a Healthy Future, which strongly supports the higher taxes, says it costs $237 million a year to support tobacco-related health care costs in the Medicaid program.

The new taxes also would generate extra revenue for the state, an estimated $80 million or more a year. Opponents contend that number is too high, but supporters say price increases for tobacco products lead to fairly predictable and stable funding streams. Studies also show concerns are unfounded that Kansas City area customers would just cross the state line for cheaper smokes, these officials add.

However, boosting the Kansas cigarette tax to $2.29 a pack as well as increased taxes on other tobacco products wouldn’t come close to producing enough money to make up for revenue losses because of the costly income tax cuts the Legislature approved and Brownback signed in 2012 and 2013.

As of this week, the Legislature still has a gap of about $400 million to close between expenses and revenues as members get ready to approve the next fiscal year’s budget, which starts July 1.

The single best way to assure that the state has sufficient cash on hand to provide high quality public services, especially in the K-12 education system and in social services, is to eliminate the ill-conceived tax cuts. Unfortunately, Brownback and many GOP legislators adamantly say they won’t do that, though a rollback of part of the tax cuts appears to be gaining steam among some lawmakers.

The future of the cigarette tax increase is, like many things in Topeka these days, difficult to predict.

Kansans for a Healthy Future will try to apply some public pressure on legislators by holding a rally Monday afternoon at the Capitol.

Sen. Les Donovan, a Republican from Wichita, has said a cigarette tax increase has merit but a smaller boost might be tried, somewhere between 50 cents and $1 a pack.

Democratic legislators, in no hurry to help Republicans clean up the fiscal mess they created, have not yet embraced the tobacco tax.

But when it comes time to vote, Democrats as well as some forward-thinking Republicans should come together to pass higher tobacco taxes. That would be a victory for a healthier Kansas while generating a few more dollars to keep the state out of debtor’s prison.