Tobacco tax backers want earmarks to help entice votes

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Supporters of a bill that would nearly triple Utah’s tobacco tax are taking a new approach to try to secure votes for it.Sen. Allen Christensen, R-Ogden, is proposing a long list of earmarks for the $50 million in new revenue in hopes of winning support from legislators for his measure.Among the proposed earmarks are $10 million each for public and higher education, $4 million to reimburse county jails that house state inmates and $3.2 million for prenatal services for low-income women.The list also includes $3 million to offset Utah small-business impacts, $2 million each for the Department of Corrections and University of Utah dental school and $1.5 million for the foster care program.”These are not pork. It’s brand new money for programs that had been passed over,” Christensen told the Deseret News.But opponents said Christensen is using strategically placed earmarks to try to buy votes for a bill that failed to get out of committee Thursday.”It seems like a very poor tax policy and it seems like a corrupt process,” Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, told the Salt Lake Tribune.Christensen said he has always believed the tobacco tax is a health issue, but he’s taking the new approach because that argument wasn’t persuasive enough.Christensen, who’s seeking to raise the tax from 69.5 cents to $2 per pack, met with Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, late Friday and was encouraged to pursue the plan.”I think he is identifying a lot of areas of concern people have in the budget that aren’t being met … I think it’s proper to highlight what can be done with it,” Waddoups said.Gov. Gary Herbert has said he continues to oppose any new taxes, including the tobacco tax.But Christensen and the House sponsor of the measure, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, met with Herbert on Thursday, and came away thinking the governor is at least receptive to the increase, given the budget realities.”I don’t think that he’ll veto it,” Ray said.Separate polls by the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News/KSL-TV have found that a vast majority of Utahns support raising the tobacco tax to help balance the budget.

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