A statewide survey widely publicized last week because it showed strong support for increased tobacco and alcohol taxes in Kansas also included other responses that point to the challenge faced by legislators trying to balance the state budget.
The survey was conducted March 17 and 18 for the American Cancer Society, and the support it showed for increased tobacco and alcohol taxes certainly was notable. Seventy-one percent of those surveyed supported a 55-cent-per-pack tobacco tax increase, and support was only slightly lower, 69 percent, for adding $1 per pack in taxes. Seventy percent supported an increase in the state alcohol tax.
Support for those taxes makes a lot of sense, because for the majority of Kansans they represent a tax on someone else. According to the latest figures gathered by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, only about 18 percent of Kansas adults are smokers. KDHE’s annual report doesn’t tally all Kansas adults who consume alcohol, but it says about 14 percent of Kansas adults reported they had engaged in binge drinking of alcohol in the previous month. For the 82 percent of Kansans who don’t smoke and the 86 percent of Kansans who drink moderately or not at all, increased taxes on cigarettes and alcohol seem like a good deal.
The other issue is that although higher taxes on alcohol and cigarettes may have health benefits, the impact on the overall state budget shortfall would be relatively minor compared, for instance, with a statewide sales tax increase. A 55-cent tax increase on each pack of cigarettes would raise an estimated $69 million for the state; while the alcohol tax proposals currently on the table would raise about $22 million. It’s a start, but it’s a long way from closing the state’s $467 million deficit hole.
However, the poll shows little support for broader taxes — the ones more people would have to pay.
Of those responding to the survey, 54 percent opposed a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages; 56 opposed a sales tax increase; 68 percent opposed making churches and non-profits pay sales tax; 70 percent opposed an increase in state income tax; and 86 percent opposed charging sales tax on residential utilities.
So much for the revenue side of things.
However, Kansans don’t want to lose any of the services that revenue pays for. Eighty-seven percent wanted no reduction in funding for K-12 schools; 72 percent wanted no reduction in highway maintenance; 76 percent wanted no reduction in funding for state universities; 81 percent opposed cuts in state health care programs like Medicare; 85 percent opposed cuts for social service programs and 55 percent opposed mandatory furloughs for state employees.
It doesn’t give state legislators a lot of breathing room. About any services they cut or any revenue they raise are going to make a lot of people unhappy — which is not what they want as they head toward a November election in which many legislators will be asking voters to return them to office.
There’s no reason to feel sorry for state legislators. This is the job they were elected to do, in bad times as well as good. However, it doesn’t hurt for state residents to understand that even when state leaders make the best decisions they can, they won’t make everyone — or even most of us — entirely happy.