Wheeling, dealing fails to finish cigarette tax


Rep. Sal Esquivel said Wednesday that when he voted earlier this week to increase the state's cigarette tax he only did so because he promised Democrat leaders that he would""that day only.

In what has become a bit of a political brouhaha, Esquivel unexpectedly voted for the tax increase Monday, when it failed by one vote; then he voted against the bill the next day, when it failed again by a single vote.

"I have hated that bill from the very beginning," Esquivel said of the proposal Wednesday when asked about his votes. "I said that I would vote for the bill that day, and that's what I did."

Esquivel said he was asked to do so by the governor's office and House Speaker Jeff Merkley of Portland. A spokesman for the governor said their office has been negotiating with several Republicans, but could offer no specifics.

The tax increase, sought doggedly this session by Democrats, would provide free or subsidized health care coverage to 83,000 uninsured children in families of four with annual incomes less than $51,600.

The bill now foundering in the House would allow lawmakers to ask voters on the Nov. 6 ballot to raise the state's cigarette tax from 84.5 cents to $2.02 a pack.

Esquivel supports the idea of providing health care to children, but said using an "unsustainable" revenue source to fund "such an important program" is not prudent.

"If this is such a priority, then we all need to pay for it, not just the smokers," he said.

Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said Democrats are not going to give up on trying to fund the governor's Healthy Kids program with a tobacco tax increase.

"We are going to keep pushing until the final gavel (signals) the end of session," Buckley said. "This is just too important not to push."

Their proposal, House Bill 2967, would raise an estimated $181 million in tobacco tax receipts in the 2007-09 biennium.

Even though the Legislature would be only asking voters to approve the tax increase, the measure must still get a three-fifths supermajority in the 60-member House, according to a recent legal opinion.

That means five Republicans must support the measure along with all 31 Democrats.

Voting yes on Monday along with Esquivel were Republican Reps. Vicki Berger of Salem, Brian Boquist of Dallas and John Lim of Gresham.

A day later, Esquivel and Boquist voted against the bill, and, Republicans Bob Jenson of Pendleton, Donna Nelson of McMinnville and Patti Smith of Corbett decided to support the bill.

To avoid having to get Republican votes altogether, House Democrats are looking to legislation pending in the state Senate that would raise the cigarette tax to fund the Healthy Kids program by way of a constitutional amendment.

That proposal, Senate Bill 3, requires only a simple majority to get the proposed tax increase on the ballot.

Buckley said he prefers not to amend the state Constitution to fund state programs, but if that is the only way to get the money, he supports it.

"It is the right thing to do," he said.

covers the state Legislature for The Daily Tidings. Contact him at csrizo@hotmail.com

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