Politics & Government

Push is on for hike in cigarette tax

Tate Mikell, a young Charleston police officer, had just finished a long run on the beach with his dog in 2005 and was sitting down to lunch with his mom and dad when the symptoms set in.

The Citadel graduate felt dazed as a massive headache clouded his mind. It was a brain aneurysm, and it would leave him paralyzed on his left side and permanently wheelchair-bound.

Today, Mikell, 31, hopes lawmakers will get serious about passing an increase in the state's cigarette tax. The revenue - potentially $145 million - would be used to offset budget cuts to Medicaid programs and services that Mikell and other disabled South Carolinians rely on.

In Mikell's case that's an aide who bathes and administers his medication daily and a life skills coach who stops by twice a week to help him rebuild socialization skills.

"It took me an hour and a half just to give him a bath before he qualified for the (Medicaid) voucher. He's a big guy," laughed Marsha Mikell, Tate's mom. "The services have been a lifesaver."

Without the cigarette tax money, South Carolina, grappling with a half-billion-dollar budget hole because of dwindling state revenues, could cut some of those services.

Wednesday, members of AARP South Carolina and a dozen other organizations rallied at the State House, asking lawmakers to raise the 7-cents-a-pack cigarette tax, which is the lowest state levy on tobacco in the nation.

Various organizations have pushed for an increase for much of the past decade.

South Carolina's budget woes have bolstered supporters. They predict lawmakers, in dire need of new revenue, will finally approve the measure to fill the Medicaid hole.

"This is the year our Medicaid programs will see the cuts we've been fearing," said Sue Berkowitz, director of Appleseed Legal Justice Center. "Lawmakers will get serious."

While the House is set to once again support the bill, it likely will run into trouble in the Senate.

"Will it pass? It's too early to say," said Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, on Wednesday.

As in past years, McConnell predicts senators will disagree on how the tax proceeds should be spent, a disagreement that could kill the bill. Some lawmakers will vote against it because they oppose any type of new tax. And still others disagree with funding Medicaid programs with a declining revenue source like the cigarette tax.

Even supporters of a tax increase disagree on how the proceeds should be spent.

State Superintendent of Education and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Rex made a case Wednesday at a Senate budget hearing that the money should be split between public education and health care until the budget crisis subsides. Then, all of the funds should go to health care, he said.

Rex said his agency is proposing unpaid leave for teachers, shortening the school year or cutting employee work - and pay - to the nine months schools are open. Rex said the budget could create an "amputated" education system, and that raising revenue was a "responsible response to the crisis."

One option to avoid those choices, he said, is to raise the state cigarette tax and use the revenue for education.

"This is a no-brainer," Rex told a Senate subcommittee. "The vast majority of South Carolinians support it. It's long past due."

But members of AARP South Carolina say the money should go solely to Medicaid.

"In the past, lawmakers have argued about splitting the money," said Bill Greenhill of Charleston. "We need to avoid those hangups this time and send it all to Medicaid."

Personally, McConnell said, he supports the increase only if it all goes to filling the Medicaid hole.

On the House side, Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, predicts representatives will, once again, approve a tax increase that supports Medicaid.

Votes during the past two years have proved a majority of lawmakers in both chambers agree the tax should be raised by at least 50 cents a pack. But Gov. Mark Sanford's veto has halted final passage.

Sanford has said he'll veto any cigarette tax increase again this year that does not include an equivalent tax cut in some other area.

That could prove an obstacle for a cigarette tax increase, even in the House.

"I don't know if we could override a veto," said Harrell, doubting House supporters could get the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.