EDITORIAL: And then they came for the fatty foods ...
Last month, Pennsylvania lawmakers filled a massive, $1.3 billion hole in the state budget, and they managed to do it without raising and significantly expanding the state sales tax or hiking the personal income tax.
Under those two options, just about everyone — at least everyone who works or makes purchases in Pennsylvania — would have shared the pain, and almost no one would have been happy about it.
Oh, some people surely would understand we have to pay for the things we want and need and use, and that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
That is unless, perhaps, you’re Amazon, which recently scored a sweet, $22.25 million incentive package from the state, because … why? Jeff Bezos is going hungry?
But who wants to take the time to explain all that to the constituents back home when there’s a tried and true source of tax revenue that only hurts those who deserve it?
More than half of the $1.3 billion revenue shortfall was plugged with a tax package built largely on a $1-per-pack cigarette tax increase, to $2.60, as well as new taxes on smokeless tobacco, loose tobacco and e-cigarettes.
(About $ 535 million of the gap was covered by one-time infusions of cash, meaning lawmakers are already in the hole for that amount in the 2017-18 budget. So consider that can kicked.)
Gambling also plays a big role in the tax package, including $100 million from pending legislation that would make Pennsylvania the fourth state to legalize casino-style gambling on the internet, most of the money coming from one-time license fees, the Associated Press reports.
These so-called “sin taxes” are easy for lawmakers because the levies target, let’s say, “socially unacceptable” behavior. That likely explains why they go back to those particular wells over and over when government coffers run low.
For instance, Pennsylvania’s new cigarette tax increase, which took effect Monday, is the third hike since 2004.
We understand the dangers of cigarettes and encourage anyone who smokes to quit for the sake of their health and the health of those around them. Likewise, the only guaranteed winner at a casino is the casino owner, and no one should gamble their paycheck with the one-armed bandit.
At the same time, we recognize these are addictive and compulsive behaviors.
Medical professionals naturally applauded the latest cigarette tax.
“Lawmakers made a very strong statement that reducing tobacco use and, therefore, tobacco-related cancer diagnoses and deaths, is a priority in this state,” said Diane Phillips, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) government relations director, in a news release. “… ACS CAN is grateful to all the state lawmakers that supported this common sense public health policy.”
But is it really a public health policy? It seems like more of a financial move to us — and a cynical one at that.
Lawmakers can say they’re trying to tax smokers into cessation, but they are literally counting on people not being able to kick the habit.
Imagine if all smokers woke up this morning and saw the error of their ways thanks to the state’s new taxes. Good for them, but it would blow a $500 million dollar hole in the state budget.
And if lawmakers still refused to spread the pain around with a broad tax, such as sales or personal income, they might start looking for another vice to wring.
Although tobacco use in America continues a steady decline, the obesity rate in this country has more than doubled since the 1970s, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
The extra weight puts people at risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and certain types of cancer, and accounted for $147 billion in medical costs in 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns.
Sounds like gluttony — a sin, in the minds of some lawmakers, that only a plus-size tax can save.