Topeka Rep. Betty Jo Charlton, D-Lawrence, wasn't blowing smoke Monday when she promised to vote for an increase in the state tobacco tax to support higher education.
"Well, I'm a smoker," Charlton said in an interview. "And as a smoker, I've always felt morally obligated to vote for increases in the cigarette tax."
The Senate has already passed the bill, which asks smokers to pay 5 cents a pack more for cigarettes and raises the tobacco products tax by 50 percent.
The tax increase effective June 1 would raise an estimated $12 million a year for schools in the Kansas Board of Regents system, including Kansas University.
The bill originally was drafted to generate money for the last phase of the Margin of Excellence program, designed primarily to improve faculty salaries. However, a Senate committee amended the bill to "earmark" the money for university base operating budgets, because 1991 fiscal year requests have been jeopardized.
CHARLTON and Rep. Jessie Branson, D-Lawrence, both members of the House Taxation Committee, plan to support the bill during the committee's debate on the tax.
"I'll be supporting it," Branson said. "The way I look at it, it will add some revenue and that revenue is sorely needed for the regents' institutions."
Rep. Keith Roe, R-Mankato, chairman of the committee, said hearings on the bill should take place within a week. The bill has a chance of passing, he said.
"I'm in favor of the tax, but I don't want to earmark the money. The rest of the cigarette tax goes to the general fund," he said.
"Sin taxes have a history of passing fairly easily. There's just no political liability," said Roe, who faces re-election along with the entire House this year.
TOBACCO companies oppose the bill, which would increase the state tax on a pack of cigarettes from 24 to 29 cents and the tax on other tobacco products from 10 to 15 percent.
Branson and Charlton have received letters from constituents who oppose the tax increase. Charlton said several of her letters weren't prepared by the constituent.
"Most of them seem to be orchestrated by the tobacco companies," Charlton said. "My people are making no pretense that they wrote the letter. They add in handwriting that `This letter expresses my sentiment very well.' If you read the letter, it is supposedly written by the constituent."
Some legislators believe Philip Morris USA is coordinating the campaign, writing letters encouraging lawmakers to oppose the tax for constituents to sign.
Jack Dillard, regional director for governmental affairs for Philip Morris, said the company is helping customers, upon request, battle an unfair tax proposal.