« Ray Sansom's budget fallout | Main | Brother Miguel files to replace DLP »

Cig tax, budget deal looking likelier

Both for attribution and on background, House leaders sound warmer and warmer about accepting a cigarette tax increase. If they do, a budget deal is in the offing. So pay no attention to the myriad bottom-line differences between the two chambers ($547m).

Well, actually, do pay attention to the bottom-line differences.There's still a whole lot of politics to play out and potentially queer the deal. In play: Seminole gaming, transportation trust fund raids, higher education budget cuts, state-worker pay cuts.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Ron Reagan said that he "personally" opposes a cigarette tax (or "surcharge" as the Senate calls it). "But collectively, if it's for the good of the state, I probably will support it."

Reagan points out the empty cigtax bill the House passed last week was a sign: "we want to get this thing done. And we're willing to look at all avenues. I hoped we didn't get to fees and taxes on tobacco unless we have to. But we might have to."

So what would the House take? The full $1-a-pack tax? Or Miami Republican Rep. Juan Zapata's scaled back bill? One House chief said the House, if it's going to raise taxes or fees, may as well do it all now in one fell swoop and take the larger Senate number.

"Members are ready to vote for it," Zapata said.

The Senate has given the House cover by earmarking the tax proceeds for Medicaid, thereby making it look more like a "user fee" than a straight-up tax that pays for everything. Also, the Senate has embedded the tax money in budget proviso. So if Gov. Charlie Crist were to veto the $1b cigtax langauge in the budget, he'd effectively veto $3b worth of Medicaid spending and send the Legislature into special session.

Perhaps most importantly (politically speaking): The cigarette tax polls in the high-60s, low 70s. So there's relatively little risk of a backlash. Although Big Tobacco and Americans for Tax Reform, which receives a good chunk 'o change from Big Tobacco, might try to inflict a little political pain on the tax/surcharge raisers.

Crist is working behind the scenes to avoid a cigarette tax increase and his staff is even talking about bonding future tobacco settlement proceeds to generate up-front money for the state. But legislators might be cool to the idea of more borrowing.

"We just want them to keep an open mind," Crist said.

If need be, Crist can let the cigtax bill and the budget become law without his signature. So he can campaign for U.S. Senate or re-election and still say he didn't sign a tax increase.