Gov. Deval Patrick seeks to snuff out fake butts

Millions of taxpayer dollars are going up in smoke as the Patrick administration moves to buy a pricey high-tech cigarette tax-stamping system despite little evidence of counterfeit butts in the Bay State, lawmakers charged yesterday.

Gov. Deval Patrick – who has wrangled with the state’s two major zoos over $4 million in state funding – plans to shell out nearly $5 million over the next three years for the new digital stamper.

“I’ve looked at this issue, and quite frankly (administration officials) don’t seem to have made the case that we need to move to this technology,” said Rep. Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford), who co-chairs the legislative committee on bonding.

“The money would be better spent somewhere else on local aid or restoring any of the services we had to cut,” Cabral said.

Sicpa, a Swiss company, has been awarded a $4.7 million contract for digital equipment to stamp cigarette packs instead of the stickers used now. The state is expected to spend $800,000 in fiscal year 2010 because the system won’t be implemented until midway through the year.

“This is another example of an incredibly mismanaged government. On the one hand you have the governor making unwise budget cuts that are turning services upside down, but on the other hand the state’s wasting millions on useless contracts,” said Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei (R-Wakefield).

But Robert Bliss, spokesman for the state Department of Revenue, said the new system would protect millions in funding the state receives every year from a 1998 tobacco settlement. If tobacco companies believe the state isn’t protecting their profits, they can file a lawsuit and potentially hand over less cash, Bliss argued.

The Bay State is expected to collect a total of $2 million from tobacco companies under the settlement.

Bliss also frets that the state may see a spike in counterfeit cigarettes, despite only 1,800 cigarette packs out of 117,000 seized in the state had the fake stamps.

“While we have not seen a tidal wave of them, we are beginning to see some cases,” Bliss said. “We figure where there’s a few caught, there might be more coming down the road.”


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