Same old song

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 7, 2005

As I was doing a bit of research for this week’s column, I ran across a gold mine.

I put it on my agenda last week to write a column on how our elected leaders in Raleigh always seem to find a way to single out one group of folks to pick on. In this case it’s those of us who choose to light-up and enjoy a cigarette.

Rather than adding another half-penny to the sales tax to help balance the budget (a move that would affect rich and poor alike), our legislators opted to balance the budget on the backs – no, make that the wallets, of smokers.

It didn’t take a lot of political wrangling to pull this off this time around, considering that tobacco quota holders in the state are now pulling in money off the federal buyout program. Easing a per-pack tax hike through under the current circumstances should prove as easy as White House intern during the Clinton Administration.

What is not known at this time is how large of a tax increase will be placed on a pack of smokes. The Senate and the House of Representatives are still wrangling over the budget, one that was supposed to take effect on July 1.

What is known is this isn’t the first time our state leaders have pondered the idea of raising the tobacco tax. That fact is documented by this columnist (and please note the similarities to today’s political agenda in Raleigh) when I wrote the following on Feb. 28, 2002:

Tobacco users beware: if the Democrat-controlled &uot;guvment&uot; here in North Carolina has its way – and judging by past history, they always do – then be prepared for pick-pockets coming in from all different angles.

For starters, our beloved elected officials in Raleigh don’t have enough fingers to plug the proverbial dike known as the state budget. It’s leaking faster than the water going out of Lake Gaston to Virginia Beach (thanks, in no part, to former North Carolina Jim Hunt). State budget writers and economic soothsayers are predicting as much as a $1 billion deficit before this year comes to an end.

The heir apparent to Hunt’s throne – Gov. Mike Easley – and his band of Democrat henchmen – Speaker of the House Jim Black and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight – have done nothing to downsize this monster known as state government. Rather, they continue along the age-old practice of big government equals big business. In other words, spend, spend, spend as long as you’ve got it and when the well runs dry, tax, tax and tax some more in order to get the coffers back to a level where the cycle can begin once again.

Now comes the news that a handful of North Carolina legislators are studying ways to increase revenues byway of a hike in the state tax on cigarettes. Granted, North Carolina’s cigarette tax is a measly five cents per pack – the third lowest in the nation behind Virginia and Kentucky – and granted, studies have shown that tobacco use decreases, especially among teens, when the product price increases.

But despite the notion that the state could generate an additional $7 million in revenues for each penny they may decide to tack on to the cigarette tax coupled with an impending deterrent to teenage smoking, this proposed issue isn’t about money, but rather about principle.

I’m a smoker. Will a five-to-10 cent per pack hike in taxes deter my habit? No. But in the same breath, is it fair to signal out one group of hard-working, law-abiding citizens to help plug the holes in the state budget that are no fault of our own? Again, the answer is a resounding, NO!

Studies have shown that smokers traditionally have lower incomes than non-smokers. If state officials proceed with an idea of raising the cigarette tax, then it would place a burden on those who can least afford an additional tax. But isn’t that how it always is – the middle and lower income classes pay the way for the rich?

However, my main problem with raising the cigarette tax rather than using a state-run lottery to generate much-needed revenue is that our elected state officials are talking out of both sides of their mouth. On one hand, they may want to raise a specific tax on a small percentage of people who can least afford it. Then they stand in their proverbial pulpits and preach of the financial burden placed upon poor families if a statewide lottery is passed.

Let me get this straight – you don’t mind taxing poor smokers, but God forbid letting a man spend his last dollar on a lottery ticket rather than food for his family. I must have been asleep when the state decided to run a mandated lottery.

And what if a tobacco tax increase doesn’t generate enough cash to suit our state officials. What’s next – higher taxes on booze, burgers or boats?

As the great Yogi Berra is credited for saying, it’s deja vu all over again.