Advocates for an increase to Utah's cigarette tax are attempting a bold new strategy, earmarking tens of millions of dollars in revenue toward a list of popular programs in hopes of winning support from fence-sitting legislators and boxing in opponents.
Sen. Allen Christensen, R-Ogden, is seeking to raise the tax from 69.5 cents to $2 per pack and dole out $50 million to public and higher education, the prison system, county jails and other programs that are on the budgetary chopping block.
"I'm desperate to get this thing through," said Christensen, the sponsor of SB40. "The strategy is that, after all the cuts are in the budget and done ... we know where we can get 50 million more dollars. This is what I can buy for it and this is what I'm proposing."
Opponents of the tax said the backers were using strategically placed earmarks to try to buy key votes for the bill that failed to get out of committee earlier this week.
"It seems like a very poor tax policy and it seems like a corrupt process," said Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, the House chairman of the Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee.
Christensen said he has always believed the tobacco tax is a health issue -- that the ultimate goal should be to deter people from smoking -- but the argument wasn't persuasive enough, so he is taking this new approach.
Christensen met with Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, late Friday and got a green light to pursue his plan.
"I think he is identifying a lot of areas of concern people have in the budget that aren't being met, so he's saying, here are some of the issues that can be addressed," Waddoups said. "I think it's proper to highlight what can be done with it. The public has been asking for it and the senators need to see what the results are."
Among the earmarks Christensen is proposing are $10 million each for public and higher education, $3.2 million for prenatal services for low-income women, $2 million for the prison system, $1.5 million for the New Century Scholarship fund, $1 million to address a backlog in people waiting for disability services, and $4 million to pay counties that jail state prison inmates.
The list includes $2 million for the University of Utah dental school. Christensen is a dentist
Many of the earmarks suggest the funds should be steered toward tobacco education, enforcement or health effects, but give latitude for other programs, as well.
Gov. Gary Herbert said this week that he continues to oppose any new taxes, including the tobacco tax.
But Christensen and the House sponsor of the tobacco tax, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, met with Herbert on Thursday evening and both came away believing the governor is at least receptive to the increase, given the budget realities.
"I don't think that he'll veto it," said Ray.
A poll for The Salt Lake Tribune before the session found that 70 percent of Utah voters support raising the tobacco tax.
Total projected revenue of $50.4 million
$10 million » for public education
$10 million » for higher education
$5.5 million » for Medicaid restricted account
$4 million » to reimburse county jails that house state inmates
$3.2 million » for prenatal services for low-income women
$3 million » to offset Utah small-business impacts
$2 million » for Department of Corrections
$2 million » for University of Utah dental school
$1.5 million » for foster care program
$1.5 million » for New Century Scholarship fund
$1 million » for University of Utah Medical School
$1 million » to ease backlog of those waiting for disability assistance
$1 million » for immunization
$1 million » for local health departments
$800,000 » for toxicology testing at the Health Department
$250,000 » for Utah's Own business development
$232,000 » for the Office of Recovery Services
$200,000 » to draw matching money for sportsmen programs
$150,000 » for National Guard scholarships
$140,000 » for adult protective services
$100,000 » for signs at Utah borders about tobacco impacts
Source: Sen. Allen Christensen