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Common sense on the Hill


A near-even split in the Iowa Legislature provides a rare opportunity for lawmakers to have an honest conversation about something they’ve only jabbed at each other about in the past. The pivotal issue no one wants to talk seriously about is taxation, and whether lawmakers will let common sense or emotional party ideology guide their decisions on it.

Gov. Tom Vilsack’s push to raise taxes on tobacco products is just such an example. It’s hard to defend smoking as an activity. It’s a leading cause of premature death, killing through cancer, heart and circulatory diseases, emphysema and fire. It costs Iowa $235 million annually in tobacco-related health-care costs, but at the current state cigarette tax of 36 cents per pack is generating only $88 million in revenues to help pay for them.

The American Cancer Society estimates that raising the tax to a buck a pack would generate about $160 million, enough to return the state’s Medicaid account to solvency, and also reduce the overall level of smoking, including cutting the number of teenaged smokers by 20 percent. A win-win, it would seem. Common-sense politics.

Politics, unfortunately, has little to do with common sense.

The best argument those opposed to a tobacco tax increase can make is that they’re opposed to any new taxes. It’s a tired argument, as inappropriate for the fiscal times as a simultaneous tax cuts and deficit spending, and out of sync with national trends. Astute enough to know that a broad tax overhaul with targeted increases in certain high-wage-earning groups is a poison dart politically, legislators across the country are taking the more timid approach of hiking “sin taxes” on alcohol, tobacco, gambling and other activities that are viewed as unhealthy when pursued excessively.

Iowa has been parochial in that area, actually reducing some of its sin taxes. Lawmakers have turned the “decrease taxes” mantra into an unofficial policy that defies common sense. Perhaps the libertarians are right, that taxing people’s choices is the wrong way to go about raising revenues. But failing the long-overdue comprehensive discussion about whether Iowa’s tax rates are sufficient to support a growing list of initiatives and whether current policy just shifts the tax burden to the local level, common sense says the time is right for a tobacco tax increase.

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