Taxation Committee unanimously opposes higher tobacco taxes

The Legislature’s Taxation Committee voted unanimously Tuesday against two bills that called for tax increases on  tobacco products.

One bill, LD 1406, proposed hiking the state cigarette tax from $2 to $3.50 per pack. A second bill, LD 1326, aimed to increase the tax on all tobacco products, including cigars, rolling tobacco and chewing tobacco, to an equivalent of the cigarette tax

Both bills focused on reducing tobacco use by young people in Maine. They were introduced as emergency measures, meaning they would take effect July 1 if passed. With a unanimous committee recommendation against them, that’s highly unlikely.

Educators, health-care providers and public health advocates testified in favor of the bills during a May 6 public hearing, arguing that raising taxes is a proven way to discourage youth smoking and generate revenue for anti-smoking and wellness programs. They noted that all six New England states are considering cigarette tax increases, and that Maine’s tax is lower than every New England state except New Hampshire.

Representatives of convenience stores and grocers spoke in opposition to the bills, contending that higher cigarette taxes would drive smokers who also buy gas, food and other items at their stores to New Hampshire, the Internet or the black market in search of cheaper tobacco products. That, in turn, would harm small businesses that are already struggling, they said.

During brief discussion before the votes, a number of committee members shared stories about their experiences with family members who died from tobacco-related diseases. But when it came time to vote, all 10 committee members present supported an “ought not to pass” recommendation proposed by Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley.

On Wednesday, Republican Gov. Paul LePage issued a statement affirming his opposition to raising taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products. The statement said the governor’s office had received angry calls from constituents based on outdated stickers placed on tobacco products by a group opposed to the tax increases.

“My position is clear. I do not support new taxes on tobacco nor have I ever,” LePage said in the statement.

Republican votes against the bills are consistent with the party’s stance against tax increases and the belief that higher taxes won’t act as a deterrent to tobacco use, as Rep. Roger Jackson, R-Oxford, said during Tuesday’s committee meeting.

However, Democrats have supported so-called “sin taxes” in the past, so their reluctance to recommend passage of the two bills Tuesday might signal that, with little more than a month until the legislative session is scheduled to adjourn, they don’t want to provide Republicans with any new fodder for a looming debate about how targeted tax increases could be used to fund municipal revenue sharing and still pass a balanced state budget for the two-year cycle that begins July 1.

— Robert Long