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Cigarette tax increase among new Florida laws

TALLAHASSEE — Smokers will pay an additional $1 tax on a pack of cigarettes under one of 65 new state laws going into effect Wednesday, including a $66.5 billion budget.

Some of the others establish an electronic tracking system to reduce the illicit sale and abuse of prescription drugs, require felony suspects to provide DNA samples even if not convicted, limit lawyer fees in workers' compensation cases, and allow state universities to put up columbariums for the ashes of deceased alumni.

Florida's previous 34-cents-a-pack cigarette tax was among the nation's lowest. It's going up to $1.34 through what's called a "surcharge" in the Protecting Florida's Health Act. The law also pushes a 25 percent tax to 60 percent on the wholesale price of other tobacco products except for cigars, which are exempt.

That's on top of higher federal tobacco taxes consumers began paying April 1. Cigarettes went up by 62 cents a pack, bringing the federal tax to $1.01. The federal tax also increased from 5 to 40 cents on large cigars and a bit less for smaller ones.

Besides raising more than $900 million a year for health care, sponsors say they hope Florida's higher tobacco taxes will encourage smokers to kick their often fatal habit and discourage young people from taking it up.

Smoker Sandy Milton said it may be just the extra push she needs to stop.

"If I don't quit any time soon, this habit is going to break my pocketbook," Milton said while eating at Arbetter's Hot Dogs in Miami last week.

Milton wouldn't give her age but said she began smoking before cigarette packs had warning labels. She supports the tax as a way to keep kids from smoking, but said they "are not using their brains" if they don't think it's bad for them.

Grisel Suarez, 52, said she may not quit but probably will cut down from a pack a day of Benson & Hedges to one every two or three days. She was unhappy but philosophical about the increase.

"It's like I'm being penalized," Suarez said at a Cuban bakery she owns in Miami. "People who like to dance will pay the high prices to get into clubs. Other people who like to buy expensive things will pay to have it. I enjoy smoking, so I know I will keep paying for it."

The higher tobacco tax is one of several new revenue sources needed to pay for the $66.5 billion in spending during the budget year beginning Wednesday.

Others include $5.3 billion in federal stimulus money and about $1 billion in fee increases. A conforming law already has gone into effect to raise court filing fees, but a wide range of motor vehicle fees won't go on the books until Sept. 1.

Pills: Drug dealers and addicts from across the county flock to Florida's storefront "pill mills," with the biggest concentration in Broward County, because this is the most populous of 12 states without a prescription tracking system.

Gov. Charlie Crist, who also is running in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, signed the tracking bill without ceremony or comment after several GOP House leaders urged him to veto it. They argued that the measure would violate patient privacy rights and may lead to criminals or terrorists hacking the system to get at sensitive information.

Other critics said the law is too weak.

The new law, though, drew praise from Kentucky Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, a physician and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate.

Kentucky has had a tracking system for years but continues to be inundated with illegal prescription drugs from Florida that officials say have resulted in several deaths.

"This important legislation will transcend borders, saving lives of both Kentuckians and Floridians," Mongiardo said in a statement. "For too long, Florida has been without a prescription drug monitoring system that allows health officials to prevent the practice of 'doctor shopping.' "

It'll be at least several months, though, before the new system is in operation. The law gives officials until Dec. 1, 2010, to get it going.

DNA: Florida will join 13 other states that collect DNA samples of felony suspects upon arrest. Samples previously were taken only after someone was convicted.

The new law will be phased in over 10 years, starting with murder and sex crime suspects, until all accused felons are included.

Those samples will be added to the state's DNA database. Opponents argue that demanding DNA before conviction violates a suspect's rights and predict the law will be challenged.

College columbariums: The law had been sought by the University of Florida, where officials get calls about once a month from Gator alumni who want to have their ashes spread on the school's football field — "The Swamp."

Under existing law the schools would have to be licensed as a cemetery to build a columbarium. The university, though, could not meet a requirement for cemeteries to have at least 30 acres.

Workers' comp: This law reverses a Florida Supreme Court decision that removed the fee cap on lawyers who represent employees with injury claims. The measure restores the limits that were part of a 2003 law credited with cutting premiums by more than 60 percent.

Trial lawyers say the caps will make it difficult for injured workers to get legal representation and eventually lead to another challenge.

Schools: Public schools will be affected by a couple of new laws.

One makes it more expensive to lose or damage textbooks. Current law requires students to pay 50 to 75 percent of replacement costs. The new law makes it 100 percent.

Another makes zero-tolerance policies more tolerant. Children no longer can be arrested or expelled for insignificant misbehavior like petty theft, bringing plastic butter knives to school, drawing pictures of guns or throwing erasers.

It's expected to cut costs and prevent kids from having criminal records. Another provision requires schools to review corporal punishment policies at public meetings every three years.

"This legislation maintains Florida's strict school safety policies while reducing the unintended consequences that have led to the wrongful placement of students in the juvenile justice system," Crist said in signing the bill.

Local government: Other new laws tighten the leash on local governments. One prohibits "crash taxes" — fees for causing wrecks. City and county officials, facing declining property tax revenues, say they needed the extra cash for police, ambulance and other emergency response expenses.

Local governments also can no longer spend public money to sway voters on ballot issues.

Informers: Law enforcement agencies will be required to adopt policies protecting confidential informers under a new law named for 23-year-old Rachel Hoffman, who was murdered in a drug sting while helping Tallahassee police.

Associated Press writer Damian Grass in Miami contributed to this report.

Cigarette tax increase among new Florida laws 06/30/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 30, 2009 5:25pm]
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