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State Rep. Thomas responds to Gov. Daniels' plans

Friday, January 13, 2006

State Rep. Andy Thomas agrees with Gov. Mitch Daniels' plan presented in his State of The State address Wednesday.

"Together with Gov. Daniels, House Republicans will make every effort to pass the right bills that benefit the Hoosier state," Thomas said. "Last year's session was the most progressive and aggressive in decades. With issues such as job creation and government reform, I am very confident that the governor and the legislature will work together to carry out another positive agenda in a timely manner."

One of the issues Daniels addressed was an increased cigarette tax.

Gov. Mitch Daniels promoted his proposed cigarette tax increase as a way to reduce smoking and said Thursday it could pass even in an election year, but many lawmakers are casting serious doubts on its chances.

Daniels asked the General Assembly during his State of the State speech Wednesday to raise the tax by 25 cents per pack. Lawmakers raised it from 15.5 cents per pack to 55.5 cents in 2002 to help shore up the state's finances.

The governor said in his speech that Indiana was one of the most unhealthy states, and reducing smoking -- especially among youth -- was the biggest step to improve wellness. He reiterated the stand Thursday.

"This is a health matter. It's not about money or taxation," the Republican governor said. "There are a lot of things we can do to try to persuade young people, in particular, to not take up cigarette smoking."

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President Pro Tem Robert Garton, R-Columbus, did not dismiss the proposal but stopped short of endorsing it. Several lawmakers, however, said its chances of passing were slim.

"They don't appear to be good right now, and I think part of the problem is that although the governor says it is a health care issue, most legislators aren't willing to vote for taxes unless they know where the money is going," said Senate Tax Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville.

Kenley said it would be especially difficult to get a tax increase through the closely divided House in a year in which all 100 of that chamber's seats will be on the November ballot. Republicans control the chamber 52-48.

Republican Rep. Jeff Espich of Uniondale said election-year politics would make a tax increase difficult to pass. But he also said that House Republicans had no interest in raising taxes last year and that sentiment had not changed.

State Health Commissioner Judy Monroe said 90 percent of smokers start in high school and that raising taxes on cigarettes has a dramatic effect on whether somebody picks up the habit.

Since Indiana raised the tax to 55.5 cents per pack, the percentage of minors who smoke dropped from roughly one in three to one in five, and that was consistent with other states, Monroe said.

Administration officials said a 25-cent increase would raise between $115 million to $150 million a year in tax revenue, and a new rate of 80.5 cents would still be lower than all neighboring states except Kentucky's 30-cent tax.

Daniels did not say during Wednesday's speech what the additional revenue would be used for, but said Thursday he liked the idea of spending it on health programs. He said he asked Monroe to draw up some proposals in case there is support for that.

"The General Assembly may have its own ideas," he said. "If, for instance, a consensus emerges to reduce property taxation, this would allow that to happen without interrupting our march back toward a balanced budget. There's no shortage of places this money can be used."

Democratic Rep. Charlie Brown of Gary said he supported a cigarette tax increase for health reasons. But House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, said most members of the House Democrat caucus would not back it.

"What is the proposal? Just to float a 25-cent thing out and let the money just float in the air somewhere?" Bauer said.

Sen. Vi Simpson, D-Bloomington, said she doubted Democrats would even get a chance to vote on an increase because it lacked support among Republicans who control the agenda.

The Associated Press covered the cigarette tax issue, Rep. Thomas submitted his statement to The Brazil Times.

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