and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
March #2

Tobacco, plastic bags latest targets for tax-and-spenders
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, March 13, 2008

I'm not going to dwell on Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced governor of New York, who was described on public radio today as "very smart."

Most of us would consider climbing the political ladder only to jump off headfirst by getting caught in a prostitution scandal, to be "very dumb." But dumb things are happening in politics all the time.

For instance, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court just ruled that it can't uphold the state Constitution, whose Article 48 clearly states that initiative petitions for a constitutional amendment must be taken up by the Legislature and decided with a roll-call vote. Thousands of Massachusetts voters signed a petition for universal health insurance, but the Legislature refused to take a vote on it.

Though I disagree with the petition, I signed on to the lawsuit in an effort to save the initiative petition process. Health-care activists proposed that if the Legislature wouldn't act, the SJC simply order the petition onto the ballot. The SJC instead chose to announce its impotence in the face of legislative intransigence. Good to know.

Today, for a change, I planned to focus on just one subject the proposed cigarette tax hike, but I am already distracted by the proposed plastic-bag tax. I guess I can combine the two, since they fall within the general category of government using the tax code to influence personal behavior.

Initially the tax code was meant to raise necessary government revenue for essential services, by the simplest, most effective means necessary. But some politicians like to pretend it's not about the money, it's about encouraging people to behave a certain way to make a better world. So they tax tobacco hoping, they say, to discourage tobacco use. Meanwhile they fund government services with a tax that, should their original goal be realized, will disappear as a funding source.

Chip Ford, once the executive director of an organization called "Freedom First," fought an earlier hike in the cigarette tax. He advised the tobacco companies to call the state's bluff and pull their produce out of Massachusetts, thereby immediately impacting state revenues. Should they call the state's bluff this year, it would cut state revenues by roughly half-a-billion dollars.

The only flaw in the plan was that the tobacco companies don't really care that much, since their consumers apparently will buy their product no matter how much the government taxes it. Some, like Chip himself, will quit smoking just to deny the state its take. Others might cross the border to a lower-tax state, or try to avoid the taxes online; but they will keep inhaling death and the tobacco companies will still get theirs.

Their biggest problem is that their customers die off relatively soon and there are fewer smoking kids coming along to replace them. Politicians argue that it's valid to tax cigarettes, because smokers cost the health-care system money. But a new study from the Netherlands shows that our common-sense suspicions have been correct: Smokers cost the system less because they often die of a relatively quick-acting disease, rather than living on Medicaid in nursing homes for decades.

So the real reason some state politicians want to raise the excise on cigarettes by $1 a pack is to get more easy money from pathetic addicts who they hope will be dragging those oxygen tanks around for many long years at taxpayer expense. This makes no sense.

Now state Sen. Brian Joyce, D-Milton, insists his proposed tax on plastic bags in grocery stores isn't meant to raise revenues, but to save the planet. Apparently never having lived downwind or downstream from a paper mill, he will allow us to choose untaxed paper bags instead.

I have lived downwind from a paper mill, and played as a child in tannin-stained creeks; so I always choose plastic at the store. However, I have begun carrying cloth sacks, and Whole Foods is about to require its customers to bring their own bags. My Stop & Shop also prominently displays inexpensive cloth containers for its customers to buy.

The private sector is already responding with a common-sense campaign against waste, so we don't need the government to get involved, thanks anyhow. Once the state gets dependent on that plastics tax, conscientious consumers will have an agonizing choice: Use cloth bags to save the planet and see services cut, or use plastic to protect state revenues; or, if revenues drop from cigarette and plastic taxes, accept another state income-tax hike to keep revenues stable.

I never smoked, mostly to get points siding with my father against my smoking mother. But though it must be hard to quit, I think I would refuse to let the government take advantage of my addiction with ever higher taxes on it. I'd stop smoking. And eat more untaxed food instead; and carry that food in a canvas bag.

I always resist higher income taxes. I also vote against politicians who violate the constitution. And if I lived in New York, I wouldn't have voted for Eliot Spitzer in the first place. Hey, public radio: I'm smart, too.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and Eagle Tribune, and often in the Newburyport Times, Gloucester Times, and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence (RI) Journal and other newspapers.