The issue involved here — how smokeless tobacco products (chewing tobacco, pouches, plugs, snuff) should be taxed — is something of little importance. But the larger political context does matter. As I understand it, the question is whether this product should be taxed according to its weight or according to its wholesale price. Smokeless tobacco is subject to two taxes. One is the sales tax. This tax is not part of the debate. The other is an excise tax — what might be called a “super sales tax.” An excise tax is a levy that applies to specific goods. In particular, excise taxes often take the form of “sin” taxes, such as those on alcohol and cigarettes. Since an excise tax has a fixed rate, currently 40% of wholesale value, every product has the same tax rate. The lower-cost brands, however, end up paying less taxes than the higher-cost brands. Chisum, who is driving this train, wants to switch to taxing smokeless tobacco products by weight — a rate of $1.10 per ounce. The weight-based tax generates more money than the current exise tax, and it would be used to pay off the loans of young doctors who are encumbered with debts from student loans and are willing to locate in rural areas. Anti-tobacco advocates like the plan because they hope that the higher retail prices will discourage teenage use of the products. The opponents are “Little Tobacco” (if you believe there is such a thing) companies that provide the lower-cost smokeless products. They describe the weight tax as a “Bubba tax” on people who can’t afford the more expensive products. “Big Tobacco,” on the other hand, can afford to absorb the tax increase more easily than “Little Tobacco,” and they welcome the proverbial level playing field. The interesting thing to me is the maneuvering. Chisum couldn’t get the bill out of Calendars, but he was able to tack it onto an Al Edwards bill. A point of order is pending against the tacking. If it is overruled, members will be voting this afternoon on a tax increase. Chisum has put together a bipartisan coalition that includes Gallego, Coleman, Hopson, and Gonzalez on the Democrats’ side and Republicans Davis, Berman, B. Brown, F. Brown, Christian, Hamilton, Isett, Kleinschmidft, Phillips and Woolley. Woolley? Does Houston have a doctors’ shortage? It will be interesting to see which Republicans feel that they can’t vote for a tax bill, even one that falls on tobacco. It’s the Bubba vote people are worried about. Another group that may have some heartburn over the vote is the WD-40s. As rural D’s, they face a choice between voting to raise taxes (and help rural health care) or voting against a tax increase (and hurting rural health care). I think the bill will pass, but we’ll see how many Republicans vote for a tax bill.
Politics & Policy