The Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, admits he rarely agrees with anything Democratic state Rep. Jennifer Weiss has to say. But this legislative session, Creech is wholeheartedly backing a bill that Weiss--one of the more liberal members of the General Assembly--has introduced: a measure that would raise excise taxes on cigarettes from 5 to 75 cents a pack.
Creech grew up in eastern North Carolina and worked in tobacco fields as a boy. He knows that even now, many churches in the region still cultivate small tobacco plots to raise money for expenses. Still, Weiss' bill--one of two introduced last week that would raise North Carolina's tax-per-pack--has him fairly preachifying in support.
"This issue transcends liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat," Creech says. "It's a moral issue. The scripture says, 'Know ye not your body is the temple of the spirit of God?' I think every thoughtful Christian ought to abstain from tobacco and support legislation like this to raise the cigarette tax."
On a more practical level, Creech says Weiss' bill [HB 254] will help curb youth smoking, raise state revenues and "take a little bit of pressure off a state lottery." Compared to a lottery--which the Action League opposes on moral grounds--raising cigarette taxes "at least has some redemptive value," he adds.
Seven bills that would have raised cigarette taxes stayed trapped in legislative limbo last session. And in his recent State of the State address, Gov. Mike Easley took a "read my lips"-style stance on any new taxes. Still, supporters of a cigarette tax increase say the combination of a severe revenue crunch and the absence of election-year politicking have upped the odds that a bigger tax-per-pack will win approval this year.
"I think there is a good chance this [Weiss'] bill might pass," says state Rep. Paul Luebke (D-Durham), head of the House Finance Committee and a longtime supporter of higher cigarette taxes. "It would bring in about $420 million, the same amount of money as the half-cent sales tax that the governor wants to keep on. There is Republican support for it. And I think in general, people are just feeling like the time has come."
Health advocates say they've also seen greater receptivity to the idea of raising cigarette taxes. "When you look at the recent vote to have the House floor go smoke-free, it was very bipartisan," says Melva Fager Okun, state excise tax coordinator for the newly formed North Carolina Alliance for Health. "It was symbolic of a real sea change under way in this state."
On the health care side, organizers like Okun have been emphasizing the effect higher cigarette prices will have on youth smoking. The accepted formula is that every 10 percent increase in the price per pack means 7 percent fewer young people start smoking.
On the revenue side, a cigarette tax hike is seen by some as an alternative to the governor's call for a lottery. A bill introduced last week by state Rep. Paul Miller (D-Durham) directs funds from a 35-cent-per- pack increase to a Trust Fund for Public Schools that would funnel money to the same education programs Easley wants to fund with a lottery.
That's not to say there aren't big obstacles to getting a cigarette tax increase passed. "Even just maintaining our current revenue of a half cent sales tax is going to be difficult in this climate," Miller says.
State Sen. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Orange), who's planning to introduce a cigarette tax bill in the Senate, bemoans the intensive lobbying being done by anti-tax groups like Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE). "What's bothering me is seeing [former Republican Congressman and CSE Chair] Dick Armey here with his army of anti-tax people," she says. "I think we won't get any commitment from Republicans when groups like that have descended on us."
While Weiss says she's spoken to a number of Republicans who privately welcome the idea of raising cigarette taxes, "I think people are going to be very cautious. There needs to be a real grassroots effort to let legislators know that people support this."
A press conference on Weiss' bill was scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday, March 12, in the Legislative Building. Weiss and Miller's proposals are available online at www.ncga.state.nc.us