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Eye On Boise

Group files initiative to raise cigarette tax, lower college tuition

The group filed its proposed ballot initiative with the Idaho Secretary of State’s office yesterday, after making a series of changes to the proposal. It still would raise Idaho’s cigarette tax by $1.50 per pack and use most of the proceeds to lower public college and university tuition for Idaho resident undergraduate students. It also would direct 10 percent of the proceeds from the new tax, estimated at $7 million, to tobacco cessation programs.

Gone are complicated proposals to cap future tuition increases; instead, 80 percent of the proceeds from the new cigarette tax would be applied directly to the tuition bills of undergraduate students at Idaho colleges and universities.  William Moran, who is leading the initiative campaign, said the changes came at the request of colleges and universities and other stakeholders. “We talked to experts and supporters, listened, and we learned,” he said.

Ten percent of the proceeds from the new tax would go to the state Board of Education to allocate to lowering tuition at Idaho’s community and technical colleges.

For university students, the estimated $56 million would lower tuition by 22.7 percent, based on current student numbers. If enrollment increases, the decrease per student would decline; for example, if 10 percent more students enrolled in college, the tuition cut would drop to 20.5 percent. “We kept it flexible while still trying to get students as much as we could,” Moran said.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids reports that the average state cigarette tax is $1.60 per pack; Idaho’s current 57 cent per pack tax ranks 43rd, and is the lowest among surrounding states, with Washington at $3.025 per pack; Utah at $1.70; and Oregon at $1.31. If the initiative passed, Idaho’s tax would be $2.07 per pack.

In 2011, an array of health groups backed bipartisan legislation to raise Idaho’s cigarette tax by $1.25 a pack with the proceeds to go to health care costs related to smoking; they cited a statewide poll showing overwhelming citizen support for up to a $1.50 per pack increase. But the bill failed, with a House committee refusing to hear it both that year and the year after. Backers estimated it’d cut Idaho’s youth smoking rate by 20 percent, while also funding health care.

According to the state Board of Education, Idaho’s public college tuition and fees rose 80 percent from 2004 to 2013. Meanwhile, the share of the state budget going to colleges and universities has dropped from 13.5 percent in 1994 to 8.6 percent in 2015. Tuition and fees covered 7.2 percent of the cost of an Idaho public college education in 1980; it’s 47 percent today.

Wednesday’s filing triggers a review by the Attorney General, after which the group has until April 30 to gather more than 47,000 signatures, including at least 6 percent of voters in each of 18 legislative districts. Moran said he plans to rely on volunteers from college campuses across the state for the signature-gathering.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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