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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Q poll: Raise cigarette taxes



Florida voters say it's time to tax smokers, gays should be able to adopt children, and the state's "Bright Futures" college scholarship program is a sacred cow that shouldn't be sacrificed for budget-cutting expediency, respondents to a new poll said.

Voters support a $1 increase to the state's 34-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes by a whopping 72 to 17 percent margin, according to the independent Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters conducted Jan. 14-17.

The  survey also found that most Floridians -- 55 percent to 39 percent -- want legislators to change the law that bans homosexuals from adopting children. But voters' opinions break down along party lines: Republicans support the law 52 to 43 percent, as do white evangelical Christians, 58 to 37 percent.  Democrats oppose the law 61 to 32 percent, as do independent voters, 60 to 34 percent.

Gay marriage, an issue that Florida voters soundly rejected on the 2008 presidential election ballot,  is still not popular. While 35 percent  of those surveyed favor civil unions but not marriage, 27 percent say marriage should be allowed for gay couples and 31 percent say there should be no legal recognition of gay unions.

The proposed cigarette tax hike is on the table for the regular legislative session that begins in March by several legislators who want it to offset cuts to health care programs. According to the Quinnipiac poll, smokers are the only group opposed -- 64 to 34 percent. Republicans, Democrats and independents are nearly in sync on the question, and when voters are told the money would go for public health programs, support rises slightly, to 77 percent. 

“Voters generally are opposed to raising taxes, even in order to balance the budget, but they seem to make an exception for cigarette taxes,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Given the public support, even normally antitax lawmakers might see this as a politically acceptable notion to the voting public."

The pollsters also took the pulse of Bright Futures, funded by proceeds from the state lottery. Although no legislators have proposed cutting the program, the governor and legislative leaders have said that a proposed 15 percent tuition increase will not be covered by the scholarship. Democrats oppose cutting the program by 78 to 13 percent, as do Republicans, 69 to 18 percent, and independent voters, 71 to 17 percent.

As for the cigarette tax, voters are less convinced the tax would deter smoking:

· 65 percent said it would be “very effective” or “somewhat effective” in discouraging young people from smoking.
· 50 percent said it would be “very effective” or “somewhat effective” in reducing smoking among current smokers.
· 58 percent said it would be “very effective” or “somewhat effective” in reducing state
costs for medical care.

And 49 percent of smokers say they would cut down or quit if taxes are raised.

Bright Futures has grown dramatically in recent years with many lawmakers saying it has emerged as the state's largest middle-class entitlement program. It pays up to 100 percent of tuition and fees at any public university in Florida for students who qualify based on their high school grades and test scores.

But every time the state raises tuition, it raises the cost of the scholarship. Lawmakers, chiefly longtime advocate former Senate President Ken Pruitt, have agreed with Gov. Charlie Crist that in order to inject more needed money into the state's higher education system, the 15 percent tuition hike should to be exempt from covering the scholarship program.

But Brown said leaders must tread carefully when considering how to change the program. “There may be a lot of opinion leaders talking about the need to rein in Bright Futures because of its cost in these times of tight budgets, but it is hard to imagine a less popular idea for cuts with the voting public,” he said. 

By 54 to 32 percent, voters oppose trying to save money by raising test and grade standards so fewer students receive the scholarships. By a smaller 50 to 42 percent margin, voters oppose giving the scholarships only to students whose family incomes are below a certain level.


[Last modified: Tuesday, September 14, 2010 3:14pm]


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