House panel advances tobacco tax

tobacco tax CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The House of Delegates’ version of legislation to increase state tobacco taxes advanced in the Health and Human Resources Committee on a 13-10 vote Tuesday — after committee members rebuffed an attempt to insert mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients into the bill.

Legislation to require random drug testing of recipients of food stamps or money from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program has been a perennial proposal of House Republicans for several sessions.

Its longtime lead advocate, former delegate Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, is no longer in the Legislature, having lost a state Senate bid last fall.

On Tuesday, Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, was the lead sponsor for amending the tobacco tax bill (HB2973) to take $2 million of the bill’s projected $130 million of new tax revenue to fund the drug testing program.

Lane, who is running for governor, said the proposal was not intended, as critics have charged, to target the poor or minorities.

“It’s not cute. It’s not a joke. It’s a real issue,” he said. “It’s my belief that even the threat of a random drug test will cause some people to clean up.”

Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, said she was offended by the implication of the proposal — that people receiving state assistance are presumed to be more likely to abuse drugs.

“Maybe we should test everyone who gets a state check — including everyone in this room,” she said.

Delegate Tom Campbell, D-Greenbrier, said he was concerned the drug-testing amendment would detract from the real purpose of the bill, to discourage young people from smoking.

“We’re dealing with a drug problem within the context of this bill, with tobacco,” he said.

The amendment was rejected, 14-9. Both the vote on the amendment and the passage vote Tuesday split largely on party lines.

Committee members also rejected an amendment by Delegate Ryan Ferns, D-Ohio, to reduce the proposed increase in the cigarette tax from $1 per pack to 40 cents.

Ferns said the proposal to nearly triple the current cigarette tax would be “an unreasonable burden to place on any industry at one time.”

Delegate Bobbie Hatfield, D-Kanawha, a nurse, opposed what Ferns called a compromise amendment.

“We are being asked to compromise saving 7,000 children from becoming addicted to nicotine,” she said.

While the tax rates in the House bill are identical to those in a companion Senate bill (SB362), the House bill allocates the extra money differently.

It directs $60 million per year of new tax revenue into a new West Virginia Healthy Future Fund, designating that $27 million per year be used for tobacco prevention and cessation efforts. The remaining $33 million could be directed to public health, substance abuse treatment, and other health care programs.

The Senate bill designates how $97 million per year of new funds are to be spent. It sets aside $50 million per year for a fund to pay future health care costs for retired public school and state employees, and $40 million per year for Medicaid.

That bill is currently in Senate Finance Committee.

House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, said Tuesday it was important to keep both versions of the bill alive, since next Wednesday is the last day for the House and Senate to pass bills originating in each house this legislative session.

The House bill goes to House Finance for further consideration.


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