'A Health Care Bill, Plain & Simple'

Florida House Democrats want to raise cigarette taxes, lower driver fees

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A South Florida lawmaker wants to increase cigarette taxes by $1 a pack and is offering a political sweetener to try to get it passed: Use the money to roll back fees on motorists. State representative Jim Waldman (D) filed the bill, HB 1049, last week, reported the Financial News & Daily Record.

Lawmakers in 2009 also approved a $1-a-pack increase in cigarette taxes--or a "surcharge" as supporters called it--as they grappled with budget problems.

Waldman said the state has seen decreases in cigarette smoking and he hopes the additional taxes will further reduce tobacco use by young people. "This is a health care bill, plain and simple, to stop the youth from smoking,'' he told the newspaper.

With the Republican-dominated Legislature opposed to tax hikes, Waldman said he would offset the higher cigarette surcharges by rolling back a series of unpopular fee increases that lawmakers also approved in 2009. Those fee increases caused motorists to pay more for such items as vehicle registrations and driver's licenses.

It is too early to know whether Waldman can persuade lawmakers to support his proposal, which he said would bring in approximately $900 million a year in additional cigarette taxes. No Senate version has been filed.

State representative Steve Precourt (R), chairman of the House Finance & Tax Committee, said he had not seen Waldman's bill. But more broadly, he said lawmakers don't want to raise taxes and fees this year.

Florida collects $1.34 in taxes on a standard pack of cigarettes, with $1 of that coming from the 2009 surcharge, said the report. Money from that surcharge goes into a trust fund to help pay for health care services.

David Sutton, a spokesperson for Richmond, Va.-based Philip Morris USA, told the paper that the tobacco company opposes Waldman's proposal. He offered several reasons for opposing taxes that are "unfair to adult tobacco consumers.''

He said higher taxes can encourage the use of contraband tobacco, are costly to retailers and do little to solve systemic state budget problems.

Brenda Olsen, an American Lung Association official who has long worked on anti-tobacco issues in Florida, told the paper that higher cigarette taxes can help prevent youths from starting to smoke because they are more "price sensitive" than adults.

With the economy struggling, she said, higher costs also could help spur some current smokers to quit.