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Lil' Tobacco tax close to getting snuffed out

In a year when the Legislature is talking tax cuts, when the Republican Senate President is preparing a bid to run for U.S. Senate, when the mantra is "jobs jobs jobs" it's not really the time to be talking about raising a tax on a Florida business.

But Big Tobacco can always hope. And its P.R. firms can always spin.

At issue: the so-called "Non Participating Manufacturers Fee" that Altria et al want imposed in Florida, namely on Dosal, an Opa-Locka based cigarette maker that manufactures the 305s brand of cigarettes. With the fee imposed, Dosal would have to raise prices, lose marketshare (now at 16 percent), and help line the pockets of the big boys. Before that, expect Dosal (which has its own P.R. shop, team of lobbyists and truckloads of campaign-contributions cash) to bus workers up to the state Capitol and remind lawmakers that it's a local business that gives Christmas bonuses and helps pay its fair share of taxes in Florida.

Also, Dosal will remind lawmakers that the "NPM fee" is no fee at all.

"It's a tax," says Sen. Ellen Bogdanoff, chairwoman of the Senate's Finance & Tax Committee, which was scheduled to hear the NPM issue Tuesday (Download TobaccoReport). And with that, the Big Tobacco P.R. machine cranked up, alerting reporters that the issue was up and that this could be the year that the "fairness fee" is imposed. According to Big Tobacco, Dosal should have to pay money into Florida's landmark tobacco settlement case. Dosal says it shouldn't have to pay more (about 50 cents extra per pack) because it was dropped from the federal lawsuit due to the fact that the company didn't participate in all the deceptive advertising and fugazi studies of the tobacco industry (Download DosalLetter).

Bogdanoff says she's inclined to sympathize with Dosal.

"I don't think it's fair to force someone to be a party to a settlement," Bogdanoff said. So why did she agenda the issue to discuss a report on the matter? Bogdanoff smiled. "The report was already written," she said, noting it was ordered up by last year's Senate. Ultimately, the report was never heard because her committee ran out of time. But if there were time, Bogdanoff said the proposal would meet with a frosty reception.

"With the composition of members on the committee, I don't see it passing," Bogdanoff said. That's usually a kiss of death for any bill, especially a tax-raiser, but technically the matter could survive. Yet that's even less likely in the chamber run by Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who was only one of 8 senators in 2004 to vote against the measure when it cleared the Senate before dying in the House. Now Haridopolos wants to run for U.S. Senate in 2012.

None of this means that the measure won't come up. If it does, it'll probably be for sport, as Republicans gleefully rack up a confirmed kill over a tax increase. And the P.R. firms will pocket the tobacco cash and tell their clients maybe next year.