The golden leaf, a mainstay of the state’s economy since the 1600s, has declined in importance in recent years as recognition of its dangers to human health has grown.
Nevertheless, lawmakers still shrink from taxing it.
Three bills that would have authorized additional taxes on cigarettes were extinguished with no discussion Monday in the House Finance Committee.
That means Virginia’s current cigarette tax rate of 30 cents per pack won’t change. It’s the next-to-lowest rate in the country – only Missouri’s is lower, at 17 cents.
HB1815, introduced by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington County, would have raised the per-pack rate to $1.45, the national average. HB1750, offered by Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax County, would have raised it to 80 cents.
HB2138, sponsored by Del. Bill Barlow, D-Isle of Wight County, would have enabled all Virginia counties to impose a local cigarette tax. Only Fairfax and Arlington counties can do so now. So can cities and towns.
“To me, it should be a no-brainer,” said Barlow, who has introduced the measure for several years at the request of county governments in his district that would like to lessen their reliance on the real estate tax. But the subcommittee that considered the bills last week was having none of it.
“At least they complimented me on my persistence,” Barlow said.
Hope’s bill would have directed most of the new cigarette-tax proceeds toward shoring up Medicaid, the federal/state health insurance program for low-income people. The program’s cost has ballooned in recent years and now accounts for 20 percent of Virginia’s general-fund budget.
“The Virginia Medicaid budget is facing a fiscal crisis,” Hope told his colleagues on the House floor last week. “We have to do something about it.”
Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Caroline County, a member of the subcommittee that rejected the tax bills, said the state should beware taxing tobacco to the point that people quit smoking.
“You don’t want to restrict the chicken so much that she doesn’t lay any more eggs,” Orrock said.
Tobacco interests have given Virginia candidates $433,344 in campaign contributions over the past year, according to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project.