The smoking ban that takes effect in Virginia restaurants today resulted from “an accidental stroke of genius” on his part, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said Monday.
The General Assembly approved the ban on smoking in most restaurants after several key legislators had voted against a Kaine-proposed tax on discount cigarettes last winter.
The tax proposal itself was just a political maneuver, Kaine told The News & Advance’s editorial board Monday. He never expected it would lead to the smoking ban he had been asking the Assembly to approve, he said.
“There was some ‘strategery’ involved in that one,” Kaine said of the tax proposal, invoking a memorable line from a “Saturday Night Live” skit.
Kaine was drafting a state budget in December 2008 that faced a $400 million hole in Medicaid funding. He proposed a 60-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes to cover $150 million of the shortfall.
“I knew the House (of Delegates) would not vote for it,” Kaine said.
But he also knew, “from working with the incoming Obama administration, that they were going to do a stimulus bill that was going to have Medicaid money. And I knew it was going to pass,” Kaine said.
“But I couldn’t put that into my budget, because it hadn’t passed yet.
“So what was the better thing to do? If I had just announced a ton of Medicaid cuts, I would have made every senior frightened and every low-income person frightened, and then three months later the stimulus passes.
“The legislature puts all the money back in and they say, ‘Hey, we saved you from these horrible cuts the governor was going to make.’
“So I decided what I would do is, I would not make those cuts. Instead, I would propose a cigarette tax.
“It kept me from having to make cuts,” Kaine said.
After the U.S. Congress approved Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill on Feb. 12, Virginia legislators used part of the state’s share to plug the Medicaid shortfall.
“I didn’t have to terrorize seniors with Medicaid cuts that were not going to be made, and I got one other additional benefit that I didn’t think about,” which was the smoking ban he had proposed, Kaine said.
“By putting the cigarette tax on the table too, I gave every legislator one way to make Philip Morris happy, by voting against the cigarette tax,” Kaine said.
Tobacco giant Philip Morris, based in Richmond, is one of the state’s most influential lobbyists and campaign contributors.
“A lot of guys (legislators) voted against the cigarette tax and then they voted for the smoking ban, which I hadn’t had before,” Kaine said.
“So that one was an accidental stroke of genius,” said Kaine, whose four-year term ends Jan. 16.
The cigarette tax proposal probably won’t emerge again this year, Kaine said, although Virginia’s budget is facing a $3.6 billion gap between current expenses and the revenues anticipated in the next two years.
A cigarette tax wouldn’t generate enough revenue to help much with the shortfall, even if the tax were to be approved, Kaine said.
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