Idaho

Idaho Democrats make stand on cigarette tax hearing

BOISE – The Idaho House’s minority Democrats declared a procedural guerrilla war on Tuesday, vowing stall tactics to delay the 2011 session’s end to protest the Republican majority’s refusal to consider hiking the cigarette tax by $1.25 to fill budget holes.

Minority Leader John Rusche told reporters Tuesday that his party, only 13 strong in the House compared with 57 Republicans, aims to force the GOP into giving a hearing to the tax hike, as well as a proposed voter referendum on Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna’s disputed school reforms.

Rusche says the tax hike would raise about $50 million to soften the blow of cuts to state education and Medicaid programs. And he suggested days of protests by teachers, parents and students outside the Capitol in Boise over Luna’s education reforms are a sign of overwhelming anger that merits vetting the question of public support at the ballot box.

“We’ll do whatever we can at the appropriate time,” Rusche said during a short press conference. “It seems appropriate that we could ask for a hearing on something that has been of key concern throughout this entire session.”

The tactics Rusche and other Democratic leaders – including Rep. Brian Cronin of Boise – described could include everything from asking more questions during House floor debates and demanding that bills be read in their entirety.

The issues are so significant, Cronin said, “if we need to add a few more days to the session, so be it.”

As the 2011 session began, Republican Rep. Dennis Lake of Blackfoot had planned to sponsor the proposed cigarette tax increase being floated by a coalition of some 30 anti-smoking groups, including Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

But Lake, chairman of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, where the cigarette tax hike would start its legislative path, has held back on grounds he doesn’t have enough support to win even an introduction. On Tuesday, he questioned if Democrats weren’t engaging in folly by trying to force the issue on their own bill.

“Why would I bring that bill when I can’t even get my own bill printed,” said Lake. “Believe me, if I had the votes, it would have been printed.”

The battle the Democrats are fighting is two-fold.

First, they’re outnumbered 4 to 1.

Second, Idaho’s dominant Republicans are well on their way to filling a $92 million hole in the fiscal year 2012 budget. Earlier this session, for instance, they rejected a $1.50 fee hike on lawbreakers to fund the state police academy – a symbolic vote against anything resembling a tax increase.

Democrats don’t like it, but anti-tax GOP lawmakers who ran before last November’s election on campaigns based on holding the line mean to make good on those promises.

Not even the anti-smoking coalition is excited about the Democrats’ proposal. The group refused to share its version of the measure with Democrats upon learning of the minority party’s plans to force the issue. Heidi Low, one of the coalition leaders, said her group fears its efforts to hike tobacco prices in a bid to reduce youth smoking could be undermined by a late-session political battle – especially when the bill’s chances of survival are slim even if it gets a hearing.

“We know that it’s a good bill. We want to see a good bill pass at some point,” Low said. “It may not be this year.”



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