December 20, 2008

Why Virginia Won't Hike Its CIg Tax

Earlier this week, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine proposed doubling the state's cigarette tax from 30 to 60 cents per pack. Once upon a time, this would have been a pretty substantial hike. But with the wave of cigarette tax hikes nationwide over the past decade, this proposal would best be described as bringing Virginia's tax more in line with what the rest of the states currently do. As the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids reports, the nationwide average cig tax is now $1.19 per pack.

The Republican-led House quickly announced that it was having none of this. Their reason? Economic development:
[Virginia House Speaker William] Howell and [U.S. House member Eric] Cantor argued that a cigarette tax hike would send the wrong signal to other states, which might be more inclined to raise their cigarette taxes. That could lead to job losses in the tobacco industry, especially in Virginia.
The most obvious response to this rationale is that they're trying to close the barn door after the horses have gotten out. State lawmakers have looked--and continue to look, right now-- to cigarette taxes as their favorite source of new tax revenue for years now. The idea that other states are waiting for the official sanction of tobacco-producing states before further jacking up their cig taxes is pretty far-fetched.

But the more interesting question is why Howell views the tobacco industry as the most vital component of Virginia's economic development strategy going forward. (To say nothing of why Cantor, who after all is a member of the US Congress, not Virginia's legislature, is weighing in on this point.) Tobacco consumption has been falling for decades nationwide. Not just on a per capita basis either-- we're just collectively purchasing fewer and fewer smokes every year, as public knowledge of the immense healthcare costs associated with smoking increases.

It's a dying industry, a relic of the past. So why should Virginia, a state that has enjoyed a real technology boom over the past decade, want to reinforce the role of this industry in its economy? The Washington Post's Pete Earley has a disheartening, but probably apt, answer: because Virginia lawmakers got paid to think this way. As Earley notes, virtually every member of Virginia's tax writing committees in the House and Senate regularly take campaign contributions from the tobacco industry. You don't have to be a Rod Blagojevich for these contributions to have a subtle influence on how you think and vote on economic policy issues.

At a time when we're contemplating spending billions of dollars to prop up the US auto industry, it's hard to get too sniffy about efforts to keep the Virginia tobacco industry going. But as Virginia confronts a major budget deficit, every dollar of tax revenue not collected from the tobacco industry is coming from somewhere else. And by refusing to consider hiking the cigarette tax on economic development grounds, Virginia lawmakers are basically asserting that any other interest that could be taxed-- whether it's manufacturers, small retail businesses, or individual wage-earners and consumers-- are less vital to Virginia's long-term economic growth than are tobacco farmers. And it's hard to see any other explanation for this backwards approach to economic development than campaign contributions. As the late, great Mark Felt apparently never really said, "follow the money."


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