Originally created 03/18/03

Tobacco tax could test 'no tax increase' pledge signers



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Gov. Mark Sanford's plan to raise cigarette taxes could test the commitment of legislators who have pledged not to vote for tax increases.

Sanford, who also signed the pledge, hasn't received blessings from Americans for Tax Reform on his plan to increase the cigarette tax in exchange for income tax credits.

Although on Friday the national taxpayer group said the proposal would violate the pledge, the organization said Monday it would need more time to examine the plan before deciding whether the promise of "no new taxes" actually would be broken.

Sanford's idea is to raise state taxes on cigarettes to 53 cents a pack, up from one of the nation's lowest levies at 7 cents a pack, to raise $150 million a year for Medicaid programs. However, the governor wants the higher tobacco taxes to be offset through a reduction in the state's income tax.

A year ago, Sanford was under fire for a plan to apply the state's 5 percent sales tax to gasoline in exchange for the gradual elimination of the personal income tax. At the time, Grover Norquist, president of the tax reform group, said the plan made sense and much of the criticism faded.

Now plans to increase the cigarette tax have brought Americans for Tax Reform and its pledge back into the picture. Two months ago, Sanford's no tax increase pledge appeared in newspaper ads as Sanford considered whether to support a cigarette tax increase.

A year ago, a plan to increase the cigarette tax failed on a 55-50 vote. At the time, 30 House members who signed the pledge voted against the proposed increase, 12 pledge signers voted for the increase and seven pledge signers abstained.

And pledge signers hold powerful positions that tend to keep people in line.

Last week for instance, Norquist's group lauded pledge signers House Speaker David Wilkins, R-Greenville, and House Majority Leader Rick Quinn, R-Columbia, for passing a $5.1 billion budget without raising taxes.

By that time, a subcommittee Quinn headed had killed a tobacco tax increase as it finished work on an overhaul of the state's Medicaid system, which provides health care to the state's neediest residents. Rep. Rex Rice, a pledge signer in previous years, pushed the proposal.

"I think it's a violation of the pledge," Quinn said.

Rice, R-Fountain Inn, said he didn't renew the pledge last year because he thought it was necessary to raise the cigarette tax this year. He also knew he would support a plan to add a nickel a gallon to fuel taxes to pay for road maintenance.

"I see a couple of issues that go beyond the pledge," Rice said. "As a freshman coming in, I think it's easy to sign that pledge. But at some point, adjustments have to be made to our system."

Republicans aren't alone in signing the pledge.

Rep. Herb Kirsh, a Clover Democrat who signed the pledge, says people who sign the pledge should keep it. "If they want to hesitate about it, they shouldn't sign it," he said.