Firing it up 

Tobacco tax would raise the price of smokes, help health programs

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Amendment 35

Smokers accustomed to shelling out a little more than $3 a pack would pay close to $4 if Amendment 35 passes -- and proponents say it would be good for their health.

The amendment increases by 64 cents the current statewide 20-cent excise tax and would add a new revenue stream of $175 million specifically earmarked for financially strapped health programs.

"All we're doing is bringing our taxes in line with the rest of the county," said Mike Melanson, spokesman for Citizens for a Healthier Colorado, the group sponsoring the amendment. Melanson points out that Colorado currently has the lowest tobacco tax in the nation and, even with Amendment 35, Colorado's tax would still be below the national average. By discouraging smoking, Melanson says, health-related costs will decrease and the state will begin to save money.

The amendment would expand state-funded health services for children and underserved communities, tobacco education, early detection and treatment for cancer and other tobacco-related diseases, and provide relief for tax losses from declines in the already existing tobacco tax.

"If there's justification for a tax, this is not the way to do it." said Wilson Croom, treasurer for Protect Our Constitution -- Vote No on No. 35, the group opposing the amendment. Croom's group is backed by large cigarette manufacturers such as R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris. Croom said his group opposes a "constitutional amendment that ties the Legislature's hands." Croom also said that the amendment would increase the thicket of contradictory constitutional budget mandates and should be opposed on these grounds.

Voters previously passed the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, which limits state spending with revenue caps and prohibits non-voter-approved tax hikes. Voters subsequently approved Amendment 23, which guarantees K-12 school funding, leaving few option for other programs in tight budget years -- such as programs targeted by the amendment.

The amendment requires the state not cut funding to related health programs because of the new revenue stream, and instead use the funds to expand those programs. Advocates say the tax must be voted into the constitution to avoid TABOR's revenue caps.

This spring the state Legislature voted to proactively undermine the amendment by voting in a bill that would, for one day -- Jan. 1, 2005 -- cut funding for all the programs Amendment 35 would help, in effect canceling out much of the gains to health programs. If the proposal passes, the Legislature's law would likely be challenged in court.

-- Dan Wilcock


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