Bill lets counties tax tobacco

By Lauren Dake Wescom News Service April 03, 2013 02:44 am

SALEM — Curry County commissioners have no intention of taxing cigarette purchases now, but they are considering joining other Oregon counties in advocating for the ability to levy a tax on tobacco products in the future. 

“I’m in favor of this; it could be another tool for the county to raise revenue,” Commissioner David Brock Smith said Tuesday.

Curry County is considering writing a letter, similar to that written by Josephine County, that advocates for the state to remove a law prohibiting counties from taxing cigarettes and other tobacco products.  

On Tuesday, the House Revenue Committee had a work session on House Bill 2870. The committee could vote to move the bill forward.

If the bill passes both chambers, counties could levy taxes on tobacco products. Under the current version of the bill, there would be no limit on how they could tax, but 20 percent of the revenue would help fund public health programs.

When considering whether to support the bill, Deschutes County Commission Chairman Alan Unger said Monday that his county thought of some of the hard-hit rural timber counties, which are struggling because federal subsidies have dried up. 

“Look at Curry, Josephine, Lane counties; they need more revenue sources,” Unger said.

Eric Schmidt, with the Association of Oregon Counties, said the bill would give counties “another tool in the toolbox to fund and provide vital public services.”

Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, who sits on the House Revenue Committee, is not supportive of the idea. 

Conger said the tax would unfairly target the low-income population and force people who are addicted to the products to forego other more important needs, such as a good diet or access to health care.

“I have a lot of concerns about cigarette taxes,” he said. 

His colleague on the revenue committee, Rep. Vicki Berger, R-Salem, said, “Uneven taxation is never a good idea.” She pointed out that convenience stores near each other but in different counties could have drastically different prices on a pack. 

The state currently levies a $1.18 tax on a cigarette pack. The majority of the money, 87 cents, goes to the Oregon Health Care Plan. Another chunk, 22 cents, goes to the state’s general fund, with 6 cents per pack split evenly among cities, counties and transit for low-income people. The remainder goes toward tobacco prevention programs. 

Schmidt said it’s an important step in giving counties more local control. 

“Individual counties should be able to make the decision on their own,” whether to tax, he said.

Crook County Judge Mike McCabe said he hasn’t had a chance to consider the proposed legislation. And although his county is losing about $80,000 from the federal sequestration, he’s not wild about the idea. 

“We just keep taxing and taxing and taxing,” he said.