Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Deciphering McMaster's troubling approach to cigarette taxes

GOV. MARK Sanford - like the overwhelming majority of South Carolinians - believes that our state's cigarette tax should be higher. But it remains the very lowest in the nation because Mr. Sanford refuses to sign a cigarette tax increase unless it is offset by an equal cut to some other tax.

Compared to Attorney General Henry McMaster, Mr. Sanford is a tax-happy liberal.

It wasn't surprising that Mr. McMaster lit into Education Superintendent Jim Rex's proposal to increase the cigarette tax to the national average and use the money to increase health care spending and prevent teacher furloughs. All the Republicans running for governor and many, though by no means all, Republicans in the Legislature oppose a net tax increase, despite the fact that we know beyond a doubt that raising the cigarette tax will reduce teen smoking.

What was significant was that he opposes a revenue-neutral tax swap, of the sort that Mr. Sanford favors. More significant still was his spokesman's suggestion that he would reject a bill that lowers the overall tax burden if any single tax was increased.

When we talked on Friday, Mr. McMaster disputed my characterization of what his spokesman said. But it took about a half hour of verbal jousting before he was willing to stop falling back on his talking points and give me some idea of what he would accept other than just tax cuts: Maybe, possibly he would sign a comprehensive tax package that includes an increase in the cigarette (or any) tax that is far more than offset by "a significant reduction in the overall tax burden."

It's probably not a surprise to many readers that I come into the Republican gubernatorial campaign with a strong bias in favor of Mr. McMaster. But our first conversation about taxes (we had our fifth one Tuesday morning) was one of the most disturbing encounters I've ever had with a serious, significant candidate for office. Not because of my disagreement with his position on cigarette taxes, but because it was so difficult to nail down precisely what his position is.

I also was disturbed because he sounded like an apologist for the cigarette industry, repeatedly trying to deflect my point about reducing teen smoking by conflating smoking with other vices and suggesting there's no need to do anything. ("I want to discourage smoking. I think it's bad. I know it's harmful, and I know it leads to heart disease, emphysema. Obesity, fatty foods and a lot of other things lead to dire consequences as well, but we certainly ought to do all we can to discourage smoking, and the good news is it is being discouraged. That is, the number of smokers is declining.")

Even now, I'm not entirely certain what a Gov. McMaster would do if the Legislature sent him the bill Mr. Sanford wants, that raises the cigarette tax and lowers another tax by an equal amount. I know he won't advocate it, and one of his reasons - that it's unwise to fund essential services with a revenue source that you know will decline over time - is a favorite cigarette industry dodge. It's also nonsensical coming from him: If your priority is to reduce the state's overall tax burden, why would you object to a revenue-neutral tax swap that over time becomes a tax cut?

When I tried to pin him down on whether he would veto such a bill, he repeatedly fell back on his mantra: "My goal is a significant reduction in the overall tax burden, which will immediately unleash the entrepreneurial spirit of our state." (That also was his answer the first half dozen times I tried to get his position on a bill that raised the cigarette tax while lowering other taxes by much more.)

Mr. McMaster explains his opposition to the cigarette tax hike on the facing page, and if you come away from it with a different impression than what you're reading here, it's because although he has reworked it twice, in response to our conversations, he continues to imply things that he doesn't actually say and leave out things that he told me in answer to questions.

His secondary deflection to my question was to denigrate any attempt to swap a higher cigarette tax with a reduction in some other tax as "piecemeal tax reform." Normally I would applaud a candidate's insistence on comprehensive tax reform, but Mr. McMaster (like countless other politicians who throw around the term) is not quite the disciple he seems. If the Legislature sent him a bill that did nothing but cut a single tax, he acknowledged, he would by all means sign it - even though that is the very definition of piecemeal tax policy.

I do give credit to Mr. McMaster for being willing to keep talking to me until I seemed satisfied that he had answered my questions. He did suddenly end our first conversation by saying "they're calling me to go into this room" after I told him how disturbed I was by his unwillingness to give me a straight answer. (This, coming on top of his repeated recitation of his prosperity mantra, made the conversation feel at times like a parody of an interview with a politician.) But he promised to call back, and he did, at which point he finally offered that he'd "be crazy not to sign" that bill that significantly reduces taxes overall but includes a tax increase.

It wasn't until his Monday morning call that I got him to acknowledge that, yes, it's true that you cannot have "comprehensive tax reform" without raising some taxes while lowering others. He even hinted that he might not veto a revenue-neutral tax swap - though of course he never quite said that.