TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate voted unanimously Thursday to raise the state cigarette tax $1 per pack in a historic vote on a bill that two years ago couldn't even get a hearing.
The 39-0 vote came despite intense lobbying from Big Tobacco, a stinging letter of disapproval from Republican anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, and obvious opposition from both the governor and House Republicans.
"We think it's a fair and equitable tax," said Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Winter Haven, who heads the Senate budget committee.
But to Alexander the tax provides more than fairness: It raises $1 billion and is now an indispensable piece of the Senate's $65.6 billion budget package.
It is "very important to building our budget," Alexander said, to help the state avoid further cuts to education and health care. The proposal increases the state's 34-cent per-pack cigarette tax to $1.34 and imposes a $1 per ounce tax on smokeless tobacco and cigars.
Even Republicans with statewide political aspirations voted for it.
Attempts to soften the impact on several Florida companies that make hand-rolled cigars were rejected for the time being, so that the Senate could send the House a strong message of solidarity.
"We are at the part of the session where you have to impart some trust," said Sen. Jim King, a Jacksonville Republican who urged his colleagues to withdraw amendments to remove the tax on cigars. "We need to have some things going in order to do the tradeout."
The cigarette tax is one of two key funding pieces to the Senate's budget package, which senators also passed unanimously Thursday.
The other piece is a gambling expansion plan that gives roulette wheels and craps tables to the Seminole Tribe. By a 27-11 vote, the Senate passed the measure to expand gambling at the tribe's Hard Rock Casinos in Hollywood and Tampa and its five other casinos in exchange for the tribe giving the state at least $400 million a year.
Across the Capitol, the House ended a long day of budget talks with a very different result. It gave preliminary approval to a $65.1 billion budget that includes no cigarette tax increases, relies on no Indian gambling money, depletes $926 million in trust funds, raises $700 million in hiked fees and cuts the budget $547 million more than the Senate.
House and Senate leaders have until May 1 to resolve their differences over the budget and, on Thursday, gave themselves until April 26 to finish negotiations.
Alexander and Senate President Jeff Atwater showed no signs of backing down from the tobacco tax, even if it means meeting into the summer in a special legislative session.
"Quite frankly, I don't have a lot to do this summer," Alexander said. "The senators made it very clear on every vote we took today.''
The Senate's tobacco tax bill, entitled "Protecting Florida's Health," was initially conceived to offset steeper cuts to health care programs and reimburse the state for expenses on tobacco-related illnesses in Florida. But the Senate has instead used it to balance its budget.
"It will responsibly address our health care budget and, most importantly, this bill will save lives," said Sen. Ted Deutch, a Boca Raton Democrat and the bill's sponsor.
Health care advocates, who have fought for years to raise the state cigarette tax, hailed the measure.
"It's remarkable, the spirit of cooperation in the Senate in such difficult economic times," said H. Lee Moffit, lobbyist for the Tampa-based comprehensive cancer center he founded. "They understand that the state's interests are above their own parochial political interests."
The Senate made three significant changes to its tobacco bill. The chamber:
• Voted to shield Tampa Bay's cigar manufacturers and Miami's cigarettemaker, Dosal Tobacco, from most of the tax by applying the $1 per ounce surcharge only to tobacco sold in Florida. The change effectively exempts about 85 to 95 percent of the tobacco products manufactured in Florida because they are shipped out of state.
• Softened restrictions on the sale of tax-free cigarettes by the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes. The bill had required that all tax-free cigarettes sold by the tribes be labeled "Indian cigarettes'' and that anyone caught possessing them who was not a tribal member pay a $1,000 fine. Instead, they agreed to a measure to give tribal members tax-exempt coupons to obtain tax-free cigarettes.
• Imposed new restrictions on cigarettes sold over the Internet to keep them out of the hands of anyone under age 18. The proposal requires that anyone who buys cigarettes online provide a signature from the purchaser or another adult and accept a follow-up phone call to verify that the buyer is over 18.
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected]