Summit pols stand up against ‘robbing’ tobacco tax revenue
BRECKENRIDGE – State Treasurer Mike Coffman and Rep. Michael Garcia, D-Aurora, want to tap into revenue generated by the state’s new tobacco tax to make up an estimated $181 million budget shortfall – a maneuver that has Summit County politicians fuming.Voters approved the 64-cent tax increase in November with the intention of its revenue going to fund such things as community care clinics and to offset healthcare costs associated with tobacco use. But with a two-thirds majority vote of the legislature and the approval of the governor, the legislature could declare a fiscal emergency and tap those funds for other uses.”I think Sen. Garcia is smoking something,” said Sen. Joan Fitz-Gerald, D-Golden, who represents Summit County. “He didn’t talk to anyone in leadership about this proposal. He should have checked with his peers. To say I’m distressed to see that a member of leadership presented this is putting it mildly.”If the legislature declares a fiscal emergency, it could appropriate the funds to pay the state’s share of federally mandated Medicaid spending, which would free up other general fund dollars to meet state needs. If it opts to declare an emergency, the legislature would have to trim about $19 million from the budget instead of $168 million if such an emergency is not declared.Complicating matters is that the legislature cannot simply cut the budget across the board since Medicaid and primary education are protected as entitlement programs. Combined, these two programs consume about 65 percent of the state budget, and they grow regardless of whether revenues are available to pay for them. Cuts then have to come out of the remaining 35 percent of the budget, which includes corrections, human services and higher education.According to the American Lung Association of Colorado, the state’s Medicaid payments for tobacco-related illnesses total more than $250 million annually, and 17 percent of all Medicaid expenditures are spent on smoking-related illnesses.Rep. Gary Lindstrom, D-Breckenridge, is tired of legislation that proposes to rob one fund to help another.”People actually stood up and said, ‘We would be totally broke if we hadn’t raided cash funds,'” he said. “Maybe if we don’t raid the cash funds and things get so bad, people will come up with real solutions. Robbing cash funds is nothing more than Band-Aids on big, huge, gaping wounds.”Fitz-Gerald and others are upset because the proposal takes the tax revenue and spends it for purposes it wasn’t intended.”It undermines the ballot initiative,” Fitz-Gerald said. “People should be outraged.”Lindstrom agreed.”That money was designed for health programs,” he said. “I will resist it with every ounce of my body.”According to the Legislative Council, Amendment 35 should generate about $168 million in revenue for fiscal year 2005, which begins July 1.”If the amendment was sold to the taxpayers because it was going to be spent for health and they’re saying, ‘We’ve found another place to spend it,’ I’m fundamentally opposed to that approach,” said Breckenridge Town Councilmember Jim Lamb, who was instrumental in getting Summit County’s smokefree workplace ordinance in place last year. “It seems like it’s a nice fat account people have their eyes on, just salivating.””It’s disgraceful,” said Doug Malkan, who also worked on behalf of the Smokefree Workplace Initiative. “The voters approved that money for a specific purpose. You’d think our representatives would abide by that. If the legislature appropriates money for another reason, that’s just stealing money.”Yet, Fitz-Gerald said she doesn’t think the proposal has much chance of passing the way it is currently written.”I’m reasonably assured it’s not going to happen,” she said. “We don’t support it in the Senate. And since his (Garcia’s) leadership in the House was surprised, I don’t think it’s going to get support there, either.”Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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