Idaho

Eye on Boise: Cigarette tax hike quickly stubbed out

BOISE – When a proposed $1.25-per- pack cigarette tax increase was rejected by a House committee last week – the panel refused to introduce the bill or allow a hearing – two North Idaho lawmakers were outspoken in their opposition to the bill.

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, said, “The smokers, I want to thank them for this building we’re in,” noting that Idaho tapped cigarette tax proceeds to pay for the bonds to renovate the state Capitol. “It’s kind of ironic that they can’t smoke in it,” he said.

Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, said, “I’m pretty convinced that this legislation will hurt businesses in my district. That here in a year when we’re $103 million up from what we’re expected to be, I just don’t see why the state’s going to continue to be looking for more revenue. Just because we can tax this, target tobacco to tax, doesn’t mean that we should.”

Barbieri asked the American Cancer Society’s Heidi Low whether studies were done to arrive at the $1.25-per-pack amount. Low said yes. “We do know there needs to be a significant increase for there to be a decrease in youth consumption,” she said. Though there was support for a $1.50 increase in statewide polling, she said the groups backing the bill settled on $1.25 after analyzing cigarette tax rates in surrounding states.

Idaho’s current cigarette tax is 57 cents per pack, the lowest of all surrounding states; Washington’s is $3.025 per pack.

Harwood said he’s heard from a convenience store owner in Oldtown, Idaho, whose customers come from Washington to buy cigarettes. “He thinks he’ll lose 90 percent of his business,” Harwood said, if Idaho’s tax becomes equal to Washington’s. Low said even after the increase, Washington’s tax would be far higher than Idaho’s, and Washington is considering another dollar hike.

Harwood told the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, “My mother smoked for 82 years,” and remained in good health. He said, “Just because you smoke doesn’t mean that you’re going to be ill.”

This is the second straight year the House committee has refused to hear the bill, which backers say would reduce Idaho’s youth smoking by 20 percent.

Teacher pay cut bill put on hold

House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, pulled his bill that cancels teacher salary-fund cuts next year, citing “some moving targets.” Nonini said later that the bill, which differs substantially from a measure that unanimously passed the Senate, is the topic of session-ending discussions between House and Senate leaders.

“I’m willing to talk and listen,” Nonini said. “My bill, (HB) 656, is a little bit different from (SB) 1331. I’m willing to see if we can find some common ground.”

SB 1331, which is co-sponsored by 16 senators, would end all future cuts in teacher salary funds required under the “Students Come First” reform laws to pay for technology boosts or merit pay. The state still would have to fund the reforms, but it wouldn’t be required to cut teacher and administrator pay to come up with the money.

Nonini hasn’t scheduled a hearing on the Senate bill, instead proposing HB 656, which just cancels the salary-fund cuts scheduled for next year, leaving future years’ cuts in place. The budget set for public schools for next year already offsets next year’s cuts by “backfilling” other state funds into the school budget. The first cuts in state funds for teacher and administrator pay under “Students Come First” took effect this year.

Nonini said, “We’ve got to have something that will pass both bodies. I think it could be part of a going-home group of one or two bills.”

Senate backs massage therapist licensing

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, urged the Senate to approve SB 1295a to license massage therapists in Idaho, and the Senate backed him on a 28-6 vote; the bill now moves to the House.

“It is not unusual to find massage therapy prescribed as part of a physical therapy program,” Hammond said. Licensing, he said, would “assure that the provision of this therapy is accomplished in a … safe and medically appropriate manner.”

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, was among the opponents; he said he believes occupational licensing in general is a bad thing. “It limits competition and … will drive prices up,” he said.

Hammond said 43 states license massage therapists. “Right now you license people to cut your hair – not a very invasive procedure,” he said. Hammond said that if a massage therapist will be in a closed room with a potentially vulnerable client, it makes sense to ensure “that they are somebody who will do what is appropriate medically and professionally.”

Eye on Boise, a weekly column by Betsy Z. Russell, is available online at spokesman.com/boise. Russell can be reached at betsyr@spokesman.com or (208) 336-2854.


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