Opinion Extra

Rex: Cigarette tax a bold solution for many S.C. woes

A great deal of debate ensued this past week when I announced a proposal to raise South Carolina's lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax to the national average, with the proceeds split between health care and education. I remain convinced that this is the right course of action for our state.

It would be a mistake to view raising the cigarette tax to the national average as simply a plan to prevent teacher pay cuts. It's also a plan to create and preserve jobs and put South Carolina on sound economic footing, a plan to improve health and wellness, and a plan to keep our state's federal tax contribution here at home instead of going to help other states.

My plan prevents 48,000 teachers from being furloughed for one full week, an idea being discussed in the General Assembly as a cost-saving measure. In addition to the negative impact on our kids' education, this kind of furlough would be a $100 million hit to our economy. Teachers would have less money to spend, affecting every small business where they shop, every restaurant where they and their families eat, and every gas station where they fill up their cars on the way to work. This is a hit that our economy cannot afford to take.

My plan also would trigger millions in federal matching funds for health care for our kids. These are dollars that North Carolina, Georgia and almost every state in the union are maximizing to help pay for health care for their children - but that South Carolina has left on the table. We should do all we can to make sure our federal tax dollars stay right here at home, helping our state.

This source of revenue is no small matter. For every dollar raised by this cigarette tax that we spend on health care, we will get up to four dollars back from the federal government. By leveraging this money, we will generate thousands of good-paying jobs in the health care sector - precisely the kind of jobs that we need to focus on creating in our state.

And in addition to the economic benefits, my plan will fund prevention programs to reduce the number of children who start smoking, saving not only lives but money over the long term in future health care costs associated with cancer, heart disease and other tobacco-related illnesses.

Once the economy improves and school funding cuts have been restored, all revenues from the higher cigarette tax would go to health care.

My plan does what other states across the country already have done. Why should other states get through these tough economic times in better shape than South Carolina? We don't need to reinvent the wheel. All we need to do is take this common-sense step so that South Carolina is not left behind once again.

The bottom line is that this is an idea that is long overdue. South Carolina has been debating this course of action for years, but the political insiders in Columbia have been frozen into inaction by big tobacco special interests that have fought this idea.

Challenging problems require bold solutions. I challenge any opponent of this measure to present an alternative that would do so much for the state when it comes to creating jobs, improving our fiscal outlook and improving both health and education. It's time for our General Assembly to pass this law, and it's time for the governor to sign it and send a strong message to our state's teachers, families, small businesses and communities that we're putting them first - not the special interests.