Tax turn-around would negate cigarette tax hike

SALEM – If tax opponents succeed in overturning an $800 million tax hike approved by the Legislature, it would roll back a 10-cent-a-pack cigarette tax as well.

That would cost the Oregon Health Plan about $22 million in addition to about $200 million it would lose from rejection of the larger tax package.

Oregon would be the first state in 10 years to reduce a cigarette tax, dropping it from $1.28, eighth-highest in the nation, to $1.18, about 10th in the nation.

Tax opponents are circulating petitions to get the tax recall on the ballot in February.

When the health plan was created, the 1993 Legislature enacted the 10-cent increase for two years to help pay for it and has renewed the increase every two years since.

Voters added increases of 30 cents a pack in 1996 and 60 cents in 2002, mostly to finance the health plan.

The dime tax was set to die Jan. 1 but legislators approved House Bill 2152 to keep it for another two years.

When the Senate needed a tax bill that had originated and passed in the House in order to generate its $800 million revenue plan, it chose HB2152.

The cigarette tax bill was used as a vehicle for the larger tax increase plan because the Senate cannot initiate tax proposals that require a three-fifths vote.

The dime tax will continue if petitioners can’t get enough valid signatures or if the referendum goes to a vote and fails.

Referendum organizers admit they could have excluded the cigarette tax from the referendum proposal.

“There wasn’t any conversation about it, to be honest with you,” said Russ Walker, who is directing the petition drive.

“We view tobacco taxes the same way we do other taxes,” said Walker, Oregon director of Citizens for a Sound Economy, a Washington, D.C.-based antitax group that is paying for the campaign.

“The referral essentially allows it to sunset” as scheduled, he said.

Arkansas and Montana were the last states to reduce cigarette taxes, in 1993, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, based in Washington, D.C.

The Oregon Health Plan serves Medicaid clients and an expanded group of people who need medical care but do not qualify under traditional Medicaid coverage.

The health plan serves about 380,000 people whom federal rules say must be covered for reasons such as disability, age, blindness and pregnancy combined with a low income. They would be protected from cuts.

The plan also covers about 50,000 others who could lose services such as dental care, prescription drugs and support for chemical addictions – the kinds of services they lost temporarily last spring when state revenues fell.