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Virginia GOP's Tobacco Love Affair

This time, it's going to be different, promises Bob McDonnell, Virginia's attorney general and the Republican candidate for governor in the 2009 race. The commonwealth's Republicans, chastened by successive defeats and a growing sense that Virginia is becoming at least a purple state if not quite relatively secure territory for Democrats, are no longer willing to cede northern Virginia to the other party, no longer willing to allow themselves to be painted as the party of harshly conservative positions on social issues.

That's the message McDonnell is pushing in his campaign visits to the region where he grew up. Although the attorney general has spent most of his adult life in the Hampton Roads area, he is a native of Fairfax County and knows the area well. One thing he says he gets is that many of the relative newcomers to Virginia who live in the Washington suburbs don't want state government to get hung up on questions of gays, guns and God--the hot-button issues that Republicans have long used to rally their conservative base.

But just how willing is McDonnell to break with Republican orthodoxies?

Last week's proposal by Gov. Tim Kaine to address the state's frightening budget gap by proposing to double the tax on cigarettes from 30 cents a pack to 60 cents is a fine opportunity to test McDonnell's readiness to stake out a different path.

So far, he's flunking.

Such an increase "would potentially threaten" Virginia's tobacco industry, McDonnell says, slamming the Kaine proposal as a tax hike at a time when economic conditions don't support any tax increases.

There are indeed Republicans who see the current economic crisis as a moment to put reflexive and parochial political positions aside and seek consensus. Former state Sen. John Chichester from the Fredericksburg area laid out that vision in a recent speech that has many in his party wondering how they can effectively stand up for their principles while cooperating with the governor and other Democrats.

But McDonnell, House Speaker William Howell and other GOP leaders are instead clinging to their tobacco gravy train for dear life.

Why would they do such a thing when public opinion appears to be squarely on the side of cranking up the tobacco tax?

Let's look at the numbers: Altria, the silly name that the Philip Morris corporation has adopted to try to distance itself from its cigarette business, has given McDonnell the largest gift of any it has given any Virginia politician, $15,000 already in this young gubernatorial campaign. (Two of the three Democratic candidates, Brian Moran and Sen. Creigh Deeds, have each received $5,000 from Altria this year.) The cigarette maker has given $93,000 to Republican candidates this year and $65,000 to Democrats.

Republicans argue that picking on the tobacco industry could upset those companies and cause them to pick up and leave the state, leaving hundreds of Virginians jobless. It's a ludicrous argument, especially considering that Altria just got here, having moved its headquarters from New York City to Richmond just last year.

Even the tobacco industry doesn't make that argument, choosing instead to oppose a tax increase as an unfair focus on one industry.

Virginia's tobacco tax is one of the lowest in the nation. Maryland charges $2 a pack and the District's tax is $1 a pack; only deep South states and Missouri are down with Virginia in the sub-50-cents per pack tax range.

Virginia will make severe and very noticeable budget cuts next month; of that, there can be no doubt. And there's little appetite for general tax increases in any political party. But states are searching for relatively harmless ways to bring in at least a little new revenue. Hitting those whose addiction saddles taxpayers with huge medical bills is a helpful way to try to take some of the edge off the service cuts to come.

By Marc Fisher |  December 22, 2008; 8:33 AM ET
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Hitting those whose addiction saddles taxpayers with huge medical bills is a helpful way to try to take some of the edge off the service cuts to come.
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O please.

All of the medical bills combined from the effects of smoking since the 1950's STILL WOULD BE LESS THAN what all the illegals have been sucking up in free health care.

If you want to save money, start by making sure those who use the system, actually pay into the system...

Posted by: indep2 | December 22, 2008 12:03 PM

The reason Phillip Morris moved Altria’s headquarter to Virginia from NYC was because it is substantially cheaper to operate here with extremely low wage and facility costs, favorable labor laws, a long history of strong state and local government support for the tobacco industry dating back to slavery and the lowest cigarette tax in the region. Phillip Morris has enjoyed years of operating in a favorable and supportive environment getting most of whatever policies they have wanted in this state and now is it flexing its political muscle to stop any tax hikes in an economic climate that is desperate for revenue for health and social programs whose costs are only increased by the illnesses attributable to smoking. Smokers should be discouraged from smoking in any ways possible and Phillip Morris needs to start producing healthy and safe consumer products, not increasing the availability of its known harmful tobacco products because it is putting dollars into the pockets of politicians willing to sellout their constituents for public office. Is this the type of politician we want to continue putting into office – those who knowingly take money to promote corrupt corporate interests completely contrary to the interests of the public health and well being??? Haven’t we had enough of this already? When is enough, enough and when are we going to make an unequivocal statement by denying ALL OF THEM admission into the General Assembly and our state and local government offices.

Posted by: hotezzy | December 22, 2008 12:26 PM

"All of the medical bills combined from the effects of smoking since the 1950's STILL WOULD BE LESS THAN what all the illegals have been sucking up in free health care."

indep2, that's an absolutely preposterous claim and demonstrates that you don't have the least idea what you're talking about; but, please, feel free to fantasize to your heart's content while the rest of us deal with the real world.

Posted by: fdrew | December 22, 2008 1:22 PM

Well, yes, the tax on smokes could probably go up, but here's the thing--I find it very difficult to reconcile the government's "War on Smoking" with its apparently desperate need to keep the revenues from cigarette taxes coming in. Isn't there an incongruity with that?

As to the medical costs of treating addicted smokers, malarkey. The states settled with tobacco companies for many billions of dollars to address just that problem. If Virginia and other states used the dough for other purposes (which they have), tough.

Posted by: Claudius1 | December 22, 2008 1:35 PM

Marc,

You really like taxes don't you? Ever think that the poor man is the one that might be smoking that that those taxes would really bite into their salary? Nooooo, you don't think that do you. Cigarettes are evil so tax them. Sorry, but it's not Donald Trump smoking - it's millions of poor people. Encourage DC to raise its own taxes Marc, but zip it up when it comes to VA taxes why don't you?

Posted by: steven7753 | December 22, 2008 2:36 PM

Smokers get diseased and die; they really don't suck up that much ongoing medical care. Fat people with diabetis, hypertension, heart disease, etc. are much more long term users of medical care but we're not going after McDonalds are we?

Posted by: ronjaboy | December 22, 2008 3:47 PM

"All of the medical bills combined from the effects of smoking since the 1950's STILL WOULD BE LESS THAN what all the illegals have been sucking up in free health care."

indep2, that's an absolutely preposterous claim and demonstrates that you don't have the least idea what you're talking about; but, please, feel free to fantasize to your heart's content while the rest of us deal with the real world.

Posted by: fdrew | December 22, 2008 1:22 PM
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Im sorry, but those are facts. Go and do some work and disprove me before you dismiss it.

Unlike you, I take the time to do my own research instead of relying on others to tell me about it on the news

Posted by: indep2 | December 22, 2008 4:19 PM

Yes, lisping John Chichester, who helped spend Virginia into its current $3B deficit along with our Toothy Senator and Governor Kaine, is telling the GOP to just sumbit to even more taxation.

Marc Fisher does not know this, but Virginia has been growing BELOW the national average in population the past two plus years, according to the Census Bureau.

Virginia, formerly a recipient of internal migration, is now losing native born citizens to other Southern states which have lower taxes and more affordable housing, while the Old Dominion is only drawing illegal immigrants, many of whom sign up for Medicaid soon after arriving, further burdening the state's budget.

The Richmond politicians don't realize it, but the years of double digit home value increases which helped fuel Chichester's spending orgy in conjunction with Mark Warner and Kaine have ended, perhaps never to return. The Old Dominion is ticketed to lose a congressional seat at the 2020 census, and will see Arizona and Washington State pass it in population.

Posted by: graydm2 | December 22, 2008 4:29 PM

"Smokers get diseased and die; they really don't suck up that much ongoing medical care. Fat people with diabetis, hypertension, heart disease, etc. are much more long term users of medical care..."

Smokers actually do require years of care; smoking is a form of suicide, but a slow form of it. And smoking contributes very directly to hypertension and heart disease.

Posted by: fdrew | December 23, 2008 2:07 AM

Im sorry, but those are facts. Go and do some work and disprove me before you dismiss it.

Unlike you, I take the time to do my own research instead of relying on others to tell me about it on the news

Posted by: indep2 | December 22, 2008 4:19 PM

=====

Unfortunately, you two are a victim of propoganda, but this from the tobacco industry who would like you to believe that the ravages of tar and nicotine are less than they are. The problem is that if you only consider those people who are chronically ill from emphysema, various cancers, etc, you might be correct. However, the secondary conditions that many people live with (including asthma) are extremely costly. Medications such as aspirators are costly even if many of those costs are born by insurance companies. There is a reason why cigarette smokers are more expensive to insure...and that is because they are significantly more costly to the health care industry. Lower oxygenation, poorer circulation, lower lung capacity, lower immune tolerence leading to more infectious disease and treatment and many other secondary conditions that cost the state and insurance companies a fortune that completely eclipses the amount spent on illegals using the public health care system. Try doing research that is not sponsored or produced by the tobacco industry and you'll see a different set of "facts". Yes, I have friends in the health care industry that have pointed me to research that is independent of tobacco support and the numbers do not agree with your assertions.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | December 23, 2008 2:53 PM

Go Bob Go!

In a bad business environment we need to lower government spending to match income and cut taxes to spur growth and new investment.

Marc, I agree with you that advocating good government is the way we win in NOVA, but increasing taxes right now is tantamount to bad government.

Posted by: rayjr1 | December 24, 2008 7:09 PM

John Chichester's speech was delivered December 9 to the annual meeting of Virginia FREE. The full text is found at http://www.vafree.com/uploads/Chichester%20Remarks%20Dec%209%202008.pdf

Posted by: ClaytonRoberts | December 25, 2008 4:48 PM

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