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Lawmaker wants $1 tax on cigarettes
Rep Ron Stephens
State Rep. Ron Stephens - photo by File photo
A local legislator wants to raise the price of a pack of cigarettes in Georgia to help fund health care and draw extra federal funds for the state, but his proposal could go up in smoke.
“It’s an uphill battle,” said Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, of his proposal to increase the tax on a pack of cigarettes $1 – from $.37 to $1.37.  
Stephens has unsuccessfully tried to increase the cigarette tax twice before. He is still gauging the support from his party before introducing the measure when the legislative session starts on Jan. 10.
So far, the Republican leadership has indicated that they do not support Stephens’ cigarette tax since it is a tax increase, Stephens said.
“The leadership is not willing to budge because it is a tax,” he said.
Marshall Guest, a spokesperson for House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said Ralston does not support hiking the cigarette tax.
“The speaker has strong reservations about this proposal, and his position is unchanged from last year,” Guest said.
And Republican Gov.-elect Nathan Deal would also not support a cigarette tax hike, according to an e-mailed statement from his spokesperson Brian Robinson.
“The state faces many pressing priorities, and the new mandates forced on Georgia through Obamacare will further squeeze our Medicaid dollars,” Robinson wrote. “The governor-elect will continue the court battle against Obamacare’s mandates on behalf of Georgia taxpayers. He does not support tax increases.”
Meanwhile, the Democratic caucus in the Georgia House of Representatives has not taken a position on hiking the cigarette tax, according to Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, the newly elected leader of the minority party.
This year will require an intense look at tax increases and cuts, Abrams said, and the cigarette tax will be a critical one to consider since it could be beneficial to the state. She co-sponsored legislation for the tax increase last year.  
“I will strongly urge the caucus to give it reconsideration,” she said.
If the Georgia House of Representatives and Senate approve the tax increase, it could generate $400 million to pay for Medicaid, which provides health insurance to some low-income residents, and PeachCare for Kids, which provides health care to some people younger than 18 who are not eligible for Medicaid, Stephens said.
In turn, that could help Georgia draw $1 billion in matching federal money, he added.
According to the latest estimates, the state is facing an approximate $1.5 billion budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year, Stephens said. Medicaid almost always has a deficit, he added.
Stephens explained that smokers on Medicaid don’t pay higher premiums for insurance. But smokers insured by private companies have to pay more because tobacco causes diseases and millions in health care costs.   
“It’s a given,” he said. “You are going to get sick if you do it long enough.”
Those on Medicaid should not be piggybacking the cost of their smoking-related illnesses on to taxpayers, Stephens said.  
“The truth is, we should not be subsidizing Medicaid health care cost on the backs of the taxpayer after (supplying) cheap tobacco to that group,” he said.
Earlier this month, voters rejected a $10 car tag fee that would have helped raise $80 million a year needed to increase the number of Level 1 trauma centers in Georgia. A chunk of the money levied from the $1 cigarette tax increase could also be diverted to fix the state’s trauma care system, Stephens said.
“That could be a use of some of that money,” he said.
Stephens said he is not a smoker. But his father-in-law, James Anderson, was. He died in 1989 from a smoking related illness, leaving Stephens with a vested interest in this cause.
“It puts a lump in my throat every time I talk about it. That product killed her dad,” he said, referring to his wife, Janice.

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