Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | May 22, 2012

Win or lose, Prop 29 stinks

The June 5 primary ballot is a simple affair. It should take just a few minutes to mark my choices on my absentee ballot. But I’m stuck on one vote: Proposition 29, which would levy a $1 per pack tax on cigarettes to fund cancer research.

My choices for Prop 29 are “Yes” and “No.” I don’t like either option.

It’s not that I oppose a cigarette tax to fund cancer research. It makes sense to tax tobacco products, which are strongly associated with increased risk of developing several deadly cancers, to fund efforts to combat these terrible diseases.

cigarette from the Flickr photostream of danmachoid

What’s more, California ranks 33rd, according to Tobacco Free Kids, for taxes levied on cigarettes. California imposes an 87-cents-per-pack tax. The state with the highest per pack cigarette tax, New York, imposes a whopping $4.35-per-pack tax. The national average is $1.46 per pack. California is one of only three states that hasn’t raised cigarette taxes since 1999.

In addition, raising cigarette prices “is one of the most effective ways to prevent and reduce smoking, especially among kids,” according to Tobacco Free Kids. “The general consensus is that every 10 percent increase in the real price of cigarettes reduces overall cigarette consumption by approximately three to five percent, reduces the number of young-adult smokers by 3.5 percent, and reduces the number of kids who smoke by six or seven percent.”

So why haven’t I voted “Yes” yet? It’s because I despise ballot-box budgeting; Prop 29 is a prime example.

Californians pay more than $342 million per year — in excess of a third of a billion dollars annually — to maintain a well-staffed, well-paid state legislature to make these kinds of decisions. Tax and budget questions are the most important part of the legislature’s job.

When we bypass the state legislature and ask California voters to do make these decisions, I wonder: Why are we spending that third of a billion dollars each year?

We don’t spend it so legislators can avoid offending competing constituencies. In the case of Prop 29, those competing interests are big tobacco producers and health advocates.

Every time voters make a difficult decision instead of legislators, we encourage the next legislature to duck its responsibilities. We compensate state legislators handsomely and provide them with lots of staff so that they can make these tough calls. We need to stop paying them to do a job and then insist on doing the job for them.

So why haven’t I voted “No” yet? In addition to supporting a cigarette tax, I also hate the expensive, shady campaign being run by Prop 29 opponents.

There’s a dramatically uneven playing field for Prop 29. Opponents have raised $39.8 million, much of it from big tobacco and another chunk from ideologues who think that any tax is a bad tax, to fight Prop 29. Supporters have a meager $4.9 million.

Prop 29 opponents raise lame concerns that Prop 29 revenue that Prop 29 can be spent out of state. Who cares? Certainly not big tobacco; it’s investing millions to fight Prop 29 to protect its profits, not to protect California-based medical research, not that they mention that in their ads.

As the parent of a child who had cancer, I can tell you that I was not concerned one whit which state, country, or continent was responsible for discovering the treatments that eradicated her leukemia. I only cared that they existed.

If the best research projects studying lung cancer or throat cancer or any other tobacco-related disease are out of state, I’m happy to have California tax dollars funding them. I’m sure that the vast majority of cancer patients and their friends and families agree.

A “No on 29” ad claims, “Not one penny goes to new funding for cancer treatment.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board highlighted this “disingenuous half-truth,” noting “sixty percent of the revenue from the new tax — about $441 million a year — is designated for cancer research.”

A victory for Prop 29 would mean that big tobacco and anti-tax ideologues wasted nearly $40 million. I’d enjoy a moment of schadenfreude in that case.

So, if I vote “Yes” on Prop 29, I encourage ballot-box budgeting, which I hold responsible for much of California’s chronic fiscal woes. If I vote “No” on Prop 29, I validate tactics from big tobacco that I find wholly objectionable.

Given how seriously I take Rev. Theodore Hesburgh’s reminder that “voting is a civic sacrament,” it shocks me to realize that I’m seriously considering leaving the Prop 29 question blank.

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