Two recent news stories that appeared in most papers on the same day deserve further discussion, as they are very much related.
On Jan. 15, the head of the Department of Health and Human Services, Emma Forkner, was quoted as saying that the $500 million in cuts to health care programs for children, the elderly, the poor and disabled have been "gut wrenching, painful and stinging." Specifically, she was referring to reductions in hospice benefits, breast and cervical cancer screening and treatment, prescription drug benefits, dental coverage and other critical services.
Also, on that same day was news about a new poll showing 74 percent of South Carolina citizens favor an increase in the cigarette tax. There is strong support for going as high as 93 cents per pack, still below the national average of $1.19. In the last 10 years, 44 states have increased the tax on cigarettes; some have even done it twice. We have not raised ours since July 1, 1977, and at 7 cents per pack, we remain the lowest in the nation.
To me, the connection between these two stories seems clear and obvious. This is the most difficult year, from an economic standpoint, we have witnessed in decades. At the Statehouse, we are faced with the challenging task of having to decide which agencies to cut more than others. Pitting education versus health care, law enforcement versus environmental protection; these are the difficult decisions we will have to make.
And yet, the questions linger: Will this be the year we step up to the plate and do something about smoking? Will this be the year we find a new source of revenue to fund health care? And finally, can we put aside philosophical differences for the betterment of our state?
A little history for those who might not remember what happened last year. The Legislature passed a 50-cent cigarette tax increase in late spring and sent the bill to Gov. Mark Sanford. Unfortunately, the bill was vetoed and the House was unable to muster enough votes for an override. Years of hard work went up in smoke in just a matter of days.
Stakes are higher
But this is a new year, a new legislative session, and the stakes are higher. There are two conflicting opinions on raising the cigarette tax. The governor advocates for a 37-cent increase, but insists that the funds should be used for an income tax cut, making it revenue neutral. He has remained steadfast in this position and, therefore, the threat of a veto cannot be overlooked.
Then there is the alternative view, which the health care community and I strongly support. Raise the cigarette tax by 50 cents or more and use the new income to pay for health care services and smoking prevention programs. In a year in which we are scrambling to fund the most essential functions of government, where cuts in education could mean increased class sizes, and reductions in law enforcement make our state less safe, I think raising the cigarette tax and using the revenue appropriately is just a "no-brainer."
So this is where we are, perhaps at another stalemate. We need to hear from you. I hope all South Carolinians will get involved in this debate. Contact your legislator and even write the governor. Now is the time to let your voices be heard. This is a year for action.
This weekly column features opposing views from readers. These opinions are contrary to those expressed on this page or which otherwise take issue with something that appears in The Herald. All commentaries submitted become the property of The Herald and may be republished in any format.
State Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, represents Richland and Kershaw counties. He can be reached at JBL@scsenate.org.