Thursday, July 14, 2005

Minnesota Legislature Votes to Balance Budget on Backs of Smokers

The Minnesota legislature today voted to close a state budget shortfall and prevent a government shutdown by raising the state cigarette excise tax by 75 cents per pack. Apparently, none of the revenue raised will be dedicated to providing any services for smokers. The tobacco tax increase was specifically cited as being the mechanism by which the budget was balanced: "the Minnesota Legislature wrapped up work Wednesday on a two-year state budget balanced with $401 million in new tobacco revenue."

Several state representatives criticized the tax as being regressive and penalizing the state's poorest citizens in order to protect the state's wealthiest corporations: "Reps. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, and Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said the tobacco fee represents a regressive tax on the state's poorest citizens -- the result, Rukavina said, of Pawlenty's attempts to shelter corporations and the wealthy from tax increases."

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids immediately praised the tax increase, calling it a victory for "taxpayers."

The Rest of the Story

What the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids praises as a victory for taxpayers may be a victory, but it is certainly not a victory for those taxpayers who happen to smoke. It is certainly not a victory for the lowest income citizens in Minnesota who are going to bear the burden of balancing the state budget on their shoulders.

It is, however, a major victory for the wealthiest corporations and citizens of Minnesota, who are now protected from having to do their share to make up for the budget shortfall.

What just transpired in Minnesota, in my view, is nothing more than a discriminatory and regressive tax increase for some of the poorest citizens in the state, for the benefit of the wealthiest citizens and corporations.

Smokers in Minnesota have been selected out to bear the full burden of financing the state programs that the legislature should be funding through other means. It is on the backs of smokers that the budget has been balanced.

And the ultimate insult is that the very same legislature which is now asking smokers to pay for the necessary state services that no politician wants to cut or to ask the wealthy to finance two years ago decimated the state's services for those very smokers, destroying a program dedicated to preventing youth smoking and encouraging smokers to quit.

So smokers in Minnesota are hit doubly hard: on the one hand, their own services are destroyed and in short order, they are now asked to shoulder the burden of balancing the state budget.

And the saddest part of this, for me, is that a leading "so-called" public health group has praised this strategy as a victory for Minnesota taxpayers.

I certainly agree that it is indeed a victory -- for the wealthy taxpayers in Minnesota who are now off the hook. It is also a victory for corporate taxpayers.

But it is certainly not a victory for the highly addicted smokers who have now been charged with the responsibility of supporting the state's general services and balancing the budget. It is little more than a political victory for legislators who can now avoid having to lose votes from the most powerful voting block in the state - corporations and the wealthy. It is a victory that comes at the direct expense of the very population that public health practitioners should have the most compassion for - smokers.

This is not a public health measure in any way, shape or form and public health organizations have no business, in my opinion, supporting or praising such a measure. It's simply a fiscal and political maneuver.

It actually, in my opinion, is a detriment to tobacco control in the state because: (1) it leaves politicians off the hook for decimating the state's tobacco control program; they can now claim that they are politically correct by having increased the cigarette tax and the difficult political issue of whether to fund the anti-smoking program or not can be further pushed off into the future; and (2) it makes the state dependent on cigarette consumption for the most vital resources of the state: those necessary to balance the budget. It has completely taken away any legislative incentive to promote any kind of vigorous smoking cessation or smoking prevention program.

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