TALLAHASSEE — Get ready to pay more for smoking cigarettes in Florida.
Gov. Charlie Crist unequivocally stated Tuesday that he will allow a $1-a-pack tax to become law.
“The cigarette tax is appropriate, and I really view it more as a health issue than I do as a tax issue,” Crist said.
Crist had signaled weeks ago that he would accept the so-called “tobacco surcharge,” but then he signed a no-new-taxes pledge last week, raising the prospect that he might veto the increase.
A veto of the cigarette tax would have thrown the proposed budget for the year that begins July 1 into chaos, and likely would have led to a special lawmaking session.
The tax, which will raise more than $900 million a year, is tied to the Medicaid health insurance program serving 2.6 million Floridians. With the tax money gone, the state would have lost nearly $2 billion in federal Medicaid matching funds.
Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander said he made sure to weave the tobacco surcharge into the Medicaid budget for two big reasons: It links smoking with a dedicated funding source to help treat sick smokers, and it makes it tougher for the governor to veto.
By agreeing to accept the tax increase, Crist is breaking the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” for governors that he signed. The group behind the pledge, Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform, has long fought for — and been supported by — tobacco manufacturers.
Though he’ll break the state tax pledge, Crist, a U.S. Senate candidate, signed a second pledge last week from Americans for Tax Reform that asks federal candidates to oppose income tax increases. Florida has no income tax.
Crist has until May 30 to sign the budget and use his line-item veto to strike items he doesn’t like from the spending plan.
The National Rifle Association and state Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson are urging Crist to cancel a $6 million raid on a trust fund that helps pay for concealed weapons permits.
Crist had initially requested that legislators take $8 million from it. Crist wouldn’t say Tuesday what he would do about the trust fund raid or about a range of fees that the Legislature raised on drivers and court users.
In all, legislators are raising about $2.2 billion in new revenue. The biggest chunk of that money comes from smokers. Crist, paraphrasing President Ronald Reagan, said he didn’t mind smokers paying more.
“Reagan said when you want to kill something you ought to tax it. Well, it wouldn’t be bad if you killed smoking,” Crist said. “There are about 2 million Floridians, maybe a few less, who smoke. And it’s not good for you.”
Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.