The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

March 22, 2013

Senate bill hikes tobacco tax

Smokers in West Virginia might find their favorite brands cost $1 more per pack if legislation offered Thursday reaches Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s desk.

Giving SB593 more impetus, it bears the name of two members of the Democratic leadership team — Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, and Health and Human Resources Chairman Ron Stollings, D-Boone.

Not only would smokers get burned by the heavier tax, but anyone using smokeless tobacco would likewise share in the burden.

Stollings, a physician, says the measure would raise the price of chewing tobacco products from 7 to 50 percent.

Besides increasing the flow of tax dollars, Stollings said the bill could discourage the use of tobacco, especially among the young.

“It’s a gateway drug,” he said, “to drinking and every other kind of substance abuse, and it’s very addictive.”

While no fiscal note was available, Stollings said the projected revenue from the increases two years ago figured on a $140 million boost in tax.

Three-fourths of the new money generated would be directed to the struggling Medicaid program, while 1 percent would be dedicated to the governor’s contingency fund, and the remaining 24 percent would be poured into general revenue, Stollings explained.

Stollings said he hopes some of the money earmarked for the Medicaid budget could be routed into drug rehabilitation.

“We don’t have the capacity for drug recovery programs now,” the senator said.

On the day the Senate advanced Tomblin’s prison reform bill up for vote, Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, applauded him for putting $7.5 million into drug rehabilitation services, but said this is far shy of what is needed.

“It’s a drop in the bucket,” Stollings agreed.

“This would be a real way to plug some of the holes in Medicaid. It covers so many things — early childhood, child protective services, adult protective service. Those are just some of the things that we’re cutting the dickens out of. We cut our rape crisis centers. We cut our domestic violence shelters. We cut our center for women’s studies.”

On top of that, he said, Medicaid is about to welcome 120,000 new people to its rolls.

And, Stollings said, the bill hopefully will be able to invest more dollars into tobacco cessation projects.

The third senator listed as a sponsor is Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha.

Stollings said the bill stands a good chance in his committee and noted it lost by a single vote two years ago in finance.

“I don’t think people understand the situation we’re in with our budget,” he said.

“We’re at a hiring freeze. We’ve cut everything by 7.5 percent. And our revenue estimates are down $40 million.”

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