Louisiana House panel rejects cigarette tax increase

A Louisiana House committee Monday morning rejected a proposed increase in the state tobacco tax, despite pleas from some health care providers and community leaders to embrace the proposal as a way to deter smoking.

The sponsor of House Bill 63, Democratic state Rep. Harold Ritchie, of Bogalusa, asked the House Committee on Ways and Means to voluntarily defer the legislation.

The move sidelined an up or down vote that Ritchie said would likely go against the measure. But a voluntarily deferral allows the possibility of bringing the bill up again later in the session, which ends on June 23.

Ritchie said in the hall after the hearing that he did not anticipate moving HB63 again.

Republican state Rep. Cameron Henry, of New Orleans, objected and asked the panel to kill HB63 outright.

The panel voted 8 – to – 7 to allow Ritchie to voluntarily set it aside and thereby keep the tax measure alive for the time being.

The tax-writing committee then approved on a 10-5 vote to renew an existing 4-cent per pack tax on cigarettes. The tax, which was set to expire on June 30, raises $12 million, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office.

Rina Thomas, representing the governor’s office, said Gov. Bobby Jindal opposes both the 4-cent renewal and Ritchie’s effort to increase the tax on cigarettes by 70 cents to a $1.06 per pack.

The Rev. Chris Andrews with First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge had urged lawmakers to go against the wind and be politically courageous.

“I, as a pastor, know about politics, and I think that’s what we’re dealing with today,” he said.

Andrews said choices are not always neat.

“I’m tired of taking care of people who die,” said Colleen Lemoine, an oncology nurse at the interim LSU Hospital in New Orleans.

Lemoine told lawmakers that cigarettes are not like fatty foods which can be ingested in moderation without health risks. She said no amount of cigarette smoke is healthful.

Retailers who sell cigarettes and other tobacco products say the tax increase would decreease traffic and impact their businesses, which often sell items other than tobacco products.

Mark Dennis with Churchill’s, which sells cigars from a store on Jefferson Highway in Baton Rouge, testified that the 70-cent tax increase would force consumers to buy premium cigars on-line and thereby deprive the state of sales tax revenues.

Voting FOR to voluntarily defer the 70-cent cigarette tax bill with a potential to possibly bring it back again (8): state Reps. Damon Baldon, D-Houma; Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge; Mike Danahay, D-Sulphur; Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe; Michael Jackson, No Party-Baton Rouge; Rickey Nowlin, R-Natchitoches; Dee Richard, No Party Thibodaux and Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa.

Voting AGAINST Ritchie’s effort (7): Chairman Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, and state Reps. Jane Smith, R-Bossier City; Billy Chandler, D-Dry Prong; Taylor Barras, D-New Iberia; Cameron Henry, R-New Orleans; Joel Robideaux, No Party-Lafayette and Ricky Templet, R-Gretna.

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