Senate weighs taxes on pop, cigarettes

TOPEKA — Increasing the tax on cigarettes and pop would improve health and make money for the state, supporters of the taxes said Tuesday.

The Senate Assessment and Taxation Committee is considering a proposal that would increase the tax on a pack of cigarettes by 55 cents, bringing it to $1.34 per pack. The idea, which was inserted into House Bill 2388, would also increase the wholesale tax on tobacco products to 40 percent, up from 10 percent.

The bill is part of a tax package that Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, proposed to help fill a growing almost $500 million gap for the 2011 budget.

Also Tuesday another key legislator proposed a new tax on pop — a penny for every teaspoon of sugar — as a way to erase a projected budget shortfall.

The pop tax advanced by Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, would increase the cost of a 12-ounce can of pop by a dime and raise an estimated $90 million during the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Vratil introduced his proposed pop tax during a meeting of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which agreed to sponsor it.

Vratil said the pop tax is justified because Kansas — like the nation — is facing an epidemic of obesity and diabetes that is increasing health care costs.

Supporters of the cigarette tax used a similar argument Tuesday — saying that in addition to pumping about $70 million into the state's coffers, increasing the cost of tobacco taxes would decrease use of the products and save lives. Opponents of the cigarette tax are scheduled to testify today.

"By increasing the price on these products, you drive down consumption," said Mary Jayne Hellebust, executive director for Tobacco Free Kansas Coalition.

Increasing the tax would help stop younger people from developing a tobacco habit, she said.

Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Rod Bremby told the committee that the state's Medicaid program annually spends about $197 million on health issue directly related to tobacco use. He estimated 3,800 Kansans die each year from tobacco use.

Sen. Karin Brownlee, R-Olathe, who sits on the committee, worried that increasing tobacco taxes would lead to job losses.

"It is precarious to impose a tax against certain industries to fill a budget hole which we actually create ourselves," she said.

On Thursday, the Senate tax committee will begin discussing a 1 cent increase to the state's sales tax.