Topeka Gov. Bill Graves promised Thursday to fight hard for his proposed 65-cent-per-pack rise in the cigarette tax, as legislative opposition to tax increases appeared to be weakening.
Graves announced Thursday that a new coalition of health and social service groups will lobby for the increase, which is also supported by House Speaker Kent Glasscock, R-Manhattan.
At a news conference joined by Glasscock and about 40 health advocates and lobbyists, Graves said he believed Kansans may support an even- bigger increase in the cigarette tax, now 24 cents per pack.
Graves wants to raise $228 million through higher taxes on cigarettes, fuel and general sales to help cover a projected $426 million budget gap for the next fiscal year without cutting education and social services.
State Sen. David Corbin, R-Towanda, on Wednesday proposed a 35-cent increase in the cigarette tax along with a higher tax on alcohol. His plan, backed by some Senate Republican leaders, would raise $87 million in fresh revenue.
Even legislators who oppose tax increases said their colleagues are feeling pressure from local school officials, who say districts will have to cut programs and reduce teaching staffs if state aid is reduced.
"I think it's just the prospects of being accused of cutting schools that has people panicked," said Rep. Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee ended three days of hearings Thursday on a plan by Chairman Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, and Senate President Dave Kerr, R-Hutchinson.
Their plan would cover the budget gap by using rainy-day funds and reducing spending, including an immediate $39 per-pupil cut in state aid to school districts.
But Kerr and Morris also support Corbin's tax increase plan, on which a hearing is set Monday by the Senate Assessment and Taxation Committee.
Graves said: "Our problem is we're short, dramatically short, on revenues for critical, needed services, and the Legislature knows that. They're all trying to figure out a way to sort of wiggle off the hook of addressing the real problem."
Some legislators want to avoid cuts in school aid and other spending but are not sold on the cigarette tax proposal.
"It'll drive consumers across the state line," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. "Cigarette smokers are going to try to find the best price that they can find for cigarettes. I think we've got to try to negotiate."
Conservative Republicans argue that Kansans don't want tax increases.
"I think it's very unanimous that people want spending cuts," said Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita. "Certainly, they prefer a sin tax over a general tax increase, but I just don't think there's any mood out there to increase any tax."
Graves isn't only trying to sell the cigarette tax increase as a way to raise money for the state. He argues, like health advocates, that the higher tax will discourage smoking, especially among young people.
"I would tell you that my support for this initiative is not primarily driven by the budget," Glasscock said.