Amendment 35 would raise taxes on cigarettes and save lives
Colorado faces a significant health-care crisis. More than 700,000 people in our state are uninsured. Emergency rooms are overflowing and community clinics across the state are at capacity. Colorado ranks dead last in child immunization rates. And more than 4,000 of our friends, family and neighbors are dying every year because of smoking.In addition to the human toll, tobacco costs Colorado $1 billion every year – $500 for every single household in the state – in smoking-related health-care costs. Yet, Colorado has the lowest cigarette tax in the country. Luckily this fall, voters can do something about that. By voting YES on 35 we can bring new, much-needed funding in for critical health-care programs and reduce smoking rates across the state – especially among kids. Amendment 35 saves lives. Amendment 35 will raise the tax on cigarettes from 20 cents per pack – dead last nationwide – to 84 cents (still below the national average), and raise the tax on other tobacco products by 20 percent. The state budget office estimates this will raise $175 million in the first year alone. Those new revenues will be used to fund crucial health-care programs that will help all of us: Prevention and treatment of cancer, heart and lung disease; Public health coverage for Colorado’s working families; Community clinics that serve those without insurance; and Prevention and cessation programs to help people quit smoking or never start.Amendment 35 also directs new money to local governments.No one involved with this initiative takes lightly the idea of amending our state’s constitution. But the health-care, business and community leaders who crafted Amendment 35 chose this strategy because that’s the only way to keep legislators from diverting the funds for other purposes. Look at what happened with Colorado’s tobacco settlement dollars. Only about one-quarter of the tobacco settlement funds that were originally allocated for tobacco prevention and cessation programs are in fact being used for that purpose. The remainder has been diverted to other programs that have nothing to do with tobacco. The state legislature also created a trust fund out of the settlement, to ensure that education and cessation programs would still receive money even if the settlement payments declined in future years. But the legislature emptied the trust fund in 2003 to fill budget holes. We saw the same thing happen with the lottery. In the early 1980s, Colorado voters approved a state lottery, believing that all the revenues would be dedicated to parks and open space. But legislators were able to take advantage of a loophole in the law and use half the revenues for capital construction projects. Worthy purposes, doubtless – but not what the voters had in mind. It took another vote of the people to create the Great Outdoors Colorado trust fund (GOCO) and ensure that lottery revenues would be used as voters had originally intended.It is crucial to understand that, like GOCO, Amendment 35 dedicates a new budget stream to its target programs. Unlike other constitutional amendments, Amendment 35 does not require the legislature to take money away from other important priorities in order to fund health-care programs. Indeed, we have gone to great lengths to ensure that Amendment 35 does not hamstring the legislature. The measure includes an “out” clause that will allow legislators to use the revenues for general health-care purposes in times of fiscal crisis. That flexibility has won us the support of leading business groups such as the Colorado Forum.Amendment 35 is the only source of new revenue to fund health care in Colorado. Voters around the state have told us that they believe it’s a good idea to use tobacco taxes to pay for health-care programs – and they believe it’s important to put it in the constitution, so politicians can’t take the money for other purposes. We urge everyone to vote yes on Amendment 35. Barbara O’Brien is president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Al Yates is the former president of Colorado State University. O’Brien and Dr. Yates co-chair Citizens for a Healthier Colorado, which is campaigning for Amendment 35.
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