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General Assembly Renews Debate Over Tobacco Tax

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Debate over a tobacco tax is heating up again in the General Assembly.

This time, lawmakers want to pass the burden onto local governments.

North Carolina has one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the country at five cents a pack. On the state level, only Virginia and Kentucky have lower taxes.

Unlike Kentucky and North Carolina, local governments in Virginia have the power to raise cigarette taxes. It's an idea that's gaining momentum here. The county-by-county plan is one of two new ideas making waves.

A new Senate proposal calls for a 25-cent hike on major cigarette brands in North Carolina and a 75-cent hike on smaller brands. Supporters say it would provide a $200 million boost to the budget.

Jimmy Giorgi's smoking habit could get more expensive. Instead of paying $3.09 for his pack of cigarettes, he would pay $3.34 if Wednesday's Senate proposal passes.

"It's already high enough as it is," Giorgi said. "A little more is not going be too much to me."

One group leading the charge to increase tobacco taxes is the North Carolina Alliance for Health.

"The higher the tax, the fewer the children you're going to have starting to smoke," said Pam Seamans of the NCAH, "and that's really why we're here."

But raising the tobacco tax in a tobacco state, despite budget problems, isn't easy. The new Senate plan isn't sitting well with all its members.

"They call it a sin tax, but it is a tax," said Sen. Patrick Ballantine of New Hanover County. "It is another tax.

"We are the only state in America to be considering tax increases three years in a row. The only one."

Instead of a statewide increase, Rep. Paul Luebke of Durham is sponsoring a bill to let North Carolina's 100 counties raise the tax on their own.

"If we can't get a tax on statewide," Luebke said, "it is far better to let local government get some revenue, because we all know that if you raise the cost of buying a pack of cigarettes, you improve public health."

If lawmakers do go with the county-by-county tax, North Carolina wouldn't be the first state to do it. Alabama, Illinois, Missouri and New York City already allow it.

This same budget proposal also would raise the tax on beer by 30 cents a six pack and the excise tax on liquor by six percent.

Tobacco lobbyists, meanwhile, have spent big bucks in the General Assembly. A report released Wednesday by the Common Sense Foundation shows it is


you are, not


you are, when it comes to campaign contributions.

The House's co-speakers are among the top three in tobacco money, with Leo Daughtry leading the way. He's gone on record opposing a tobacco tax.

In the Senate, speaker pro tem Marc Basnight has received the most from tobacco companies even though he supports the new tax plan. Another Democrat, Linda Garrou, received the second-most, followed by John Kerr.

Overall, 22 percent of House members and 20 percent of the Senate received no tobacco money.


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