Governor to propose tobacco tax hike

TOPEKA — Gov. Mark Parkinson will propose increasing Kansas' tobacco taxes next year, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

The Democratic governor's plan is likely to face strong opposition in the Republican-controlled Legislature, although the Senate's top leader said he would support the idea.

Parkinson spokeswoman Beth Martino said the governor hasn't settled on how much of an increase he will propose. But she hinted that he's considering asking legislators to bring Kansas' cigarette tax up to the national average.

Kansas' cigarette tax is 79 cents a pack. The national average for states and the District of Columbia is $1.34 a pack, according to the Washington-based group Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

"He is going to pursue a tobacco tax of some sort," Martino said. "He is still looking at the options."

Martino said Parkinson has not decided whether to ask legislators to dedicate the new revenue to health programs, or use it to help the state balance its budget for fiscal 2011, which begins July 1.

Legislative researchers estimate that increasing the cigarette tax by 55 cents, to $1.34 a pack, would raise about $88 million during the next fiscal year. The state also imposes a 10 percent tax on other tobacco products, but doubling it would raise only $5 million during the next fiscal year.

Parkinson said last week that he's not planning to propose deeper cuts in spending to avoid a budget deficit for fiscal 2011. The state has had five rounds of cuts and other adjustments to keep the budget balanced for the current fiscal year.

He said he's considering proposals to eliminate exemptions to the state's sales tax and eliminate tax breaks granted in previous years. And he didn't rule out raising some tax rates.

Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, said a cigarette tax increase would have the best chance of any proposal to raise tax rates.

"I would support it," Morris said. "I think it's probably the only tax increase that would have the possibility of getting through the Legislature."

But many GOP legislators, particularly House conservatives, worry any revenue-raising measures will slow the state's economic recovery and hurt struggling families.

House Taxation Committee Chairman Richard Carlson, R-St. Marys, said states typically raise taxes near the end of recessions — only to see revenues boom upon recovery.

"I'm going to be very cautious about looking at tax increases," Carlson said. "I think Kansas will grow out of this recession. We just need to look at it in the long term."

Merchants also worry about losing business to other states. While Colorado and Oklahoma have higher cigarette taxes, Nebraska's is lower, and Missouri's, at 17 cents a pack, is second-lowest in the nation, behind only South Carolina.

Public health advocates have long argued that Kansans will support higher tobacco taxes if the money is used for health care programs.

But in 2002, when legislators boosted the cigarette tax from 24 cents, they did it to help close a budget shortfall. When then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius outlined a plan in 2004 to raise tobacco taxes for health care, legislators ignored the proposal for several years.