Cigarette tax would cover health care reform, but fate uncertain

? A proposed 50-cent per pack increase in the state cigarette tax easily would cover the cost of health care reforms before the Legislature, budget experts said Thursday.

But whether lawmakers returning to session in January can muster the will to increase taxes in an election year remains to be seen.

Opinions on that question varied among members of the House-Senate Health Policy Oversight Committee.

“It’s hard to see the House passing a tax increase in an election year,” said state Rep. Jeff Colyer, R-Overland Park.

But state Sen. Jim Barnett, R-Emporia, said, “That’s unknown.”

Barnett said a tax increase would have a better chance of being approved if the increase went toward reducing the cost of health care through funding prevention programs and promoting personal responsibility.

“Are we going to continue to grow a system that is not performing well now, or are we going to use those dollars to actually transform the system and get to some of those root causes,” of increasing health care costs, Barnett said.

Alan Conroy, director of the Kansas Legislative Research Department, said the proposed 50-cent per pack increase in the state cigarette tax would produce $60 million to $65 million for each of the next three fiscal years.

The cost to enact the health reforms is estimated at $30 million, $40.6 million and $47.1 million for each of the next three fiscal years, he said.

Without a tax increase, Conroy said there is no extra revenue currently in budget revenue projections to pay for the health care recommendations.

The package of 21 reforms was put together by the Kansas Health Policy Authority.

The proposal includes a statewide ban on smoking in public places, promoting healthy foods and physical activity in schools, aggressive enrollment of eligible children into Medicaid and HealthWave, and expansion of those taxpayer-funded programs to cover more people.

Approximately 300,000 Kansans, or 11 percent of the state’s population, don’t have health insurance. Most of those who are uncovered can’t afford private insurance, KHPA officials said.

The cost of health care has far outstripped inflation and increases in average pay, according to the KHPA.

Marcia Nielsen, executive director of the KHPA, said the reforms are aimed at helping prevent chronic diseases, reducing the cost of health care, and trying to get people to take more responsibility for their health needs.

“We believe that all three priorities matter and they ought to be addressed together,” she said.

State Sen. Roger Reitz, R-Manhattan, praised the proposals but was pessimistic about whether they would survive the political process.

“The Legislature is not going to fund it,” Reitz said.

But House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, predicted that when the 2008 session ended, “the bulk” of the reforms would gain approval.