Cigarette tax could come to voters


With Oregon House Republicans continuing to balk at raising the state cigarette tax to pay for children's health insurance, Senate Democrats on Tuesday took a step toward advancing the issue directly to Oregon voters.

Backers of the move conceded it was aimed at creating political pressure on House Republicans and Democrats to find a compromise to replace the 84.5-cent-a-pack cigarette tax hike plan that went down to defeat on the House floor last month.

At the same time, Democrats on the Senate Rules Committee made it plain Tuesday that they want to have something to take to voters this November if the House can't agree on a proposal to provide health coverage to Oregon's 117,000 uninsured children.

So the panel voted to advance a proposed ballot measure under which the cigarette tax hike, known as the "Healthy Kids" plan, would be submitted to voters as a constitutional amendment, a move that can start in either chamber and requires only simple majorities to go to the ballot.

Normally, tax increases must originate in the House and require supermajorities for approval.

Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, a member of the Senate rules panel and strong backer of the children's health expansion, called the move an insurance policy.

"We need to make sure we have all of the options available to us" to take the issue to voters if the House can't agree on a plan, the Gresham Democrat said.

Oregon voters approved per-pack increases of 30 cents in 1996 and 60 cents in 2002.

The House refused a month ago to increase cigarette taxes from $1.18 to $2.02 per pack to pay for children's health insurance. The plan drew 32 "yes" votes, short of the 36 required. Rep. Vicki Berger of Salem was the lone Republican to join all 31 Democrats on that vote.

Since then, however, Gov. Ted Kulongoski's office has continued behind-the-scenes negotiations to find a plan that Republicans will support.

Kulongoski spokeswoman Anna Richter Taylor said it makes sense to have a proposed ballot measure as a back-up plan. But she said the governor still hopes lawmakers can come to an agreement and not punt the issue to voters.

"This is a good policy for the state, and making decisions on these kinds of issues is what lawmakers are elected to do," Richter Taylor said.

Nick Smith, spokesman for the House Republicans, said the GOP caucus isn't wild about using a cigarette tax hike to expand children's health programs, but the issue is still in play.

"It depends on what proposal is on the table. There is still time to achieve a compromise" before the scheduled June 29 adjournment of the Legislature, Smith said.

Monnes Anderson, meanwhile, said she also is hopeful of a compromise. But she also said she believes Oregon voters would support such a proposal if lawmakers ultimately fail to agree on the plan.

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