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The power of tobacco's generosity

At last: a Republican lawmaker who has the courage to tax tobacco and the compassion to invest the proceeds in children's health.

He is Sen. Orrin Hatch, the not-always-predictable conservative from Utah, who announced last week that he will sponsor Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy's bill to raise the federal cigarette tax by 43 cents a pack and give two-thirds of the resulting $30-billion (a five-year figure) to the states to purchase health insurance for America's uninsured children, of whom there are, unforgivably, 10-million. The remaining $10-billion would go to the deficit.

Few others who make or edit the news seem to think the bill has a chance _ which it probably doesn't _ but Hatch's example is notable nonetheless for putting to shame those who need to be shamed. Sad to say, that's most of America's political establishment. As his decision demonstrates, there is nothing in legitimate conservative ideology that forbids taxes so wisely targeted to such unmistakable needs.

Yet Gov. Lawton Chiles can't get so much as a hearing in the Florida legislature for the modest 10-cent tax increase he has proposed. There, as in Congress, most are unwilling to risk cutting themselves off from the tobacco industry's generous campaign contributions. In Tallahassee, records show tobacco gave at least $633,000 to the two parties and their legislative candidates for the 1996 election, including $339,950 in unregulated "soft money" to the Republicans and $117,900 to the Democrats.

Some sanguine commentators say contributions to individual legislators are no longer worth worrying about. I dissent.

The $500 limit per source in effect since 1991 (which is actually a $1,500 ceiling per campaign) is simply forcing candidates to work harder to touch more wallets than when the bag limit was $3,000. The harder it becomes, logic dictates that they will be that much less likely to want to cross any potential source, much less multiple sources such as the tobacco industry. When $500 contributions are bundled, they can be significant, as may be seen by the tobacco contributions legislators reported last year to the secretary of state. It is unrealistic to expect those who got to forget those who gave. The only plausible cure is public finance.

Money does not predict all votes, but it will be fascinating to see what unfolds as the tobacco lobby, rebuffed in the U.S. Supreme Court Monday, tries again to repeal the Florida law under which Chiles is suing the tobacco industry for the costs of treating Medicaid patients with smoking-related diseases. (Rep. Harry C. Goode Jr., D-Melbourne, who is sponsoring their bill in the House, reported taking $3,000 of their money.)

For readers who want to keep score, here's every legislator who reported tobacco money last year, grouped by totals: (Democrats are in italics. Except as noted, all are House members.)

$5,250: Sen. W. D. Childers; $3,700, Elvin Martinez; $3,250: Dave Bitner; $3,000: George Crady, Goode; $2,750: Sen. Jack Latvala, Stan Bainter; $2,600: Rob Wallace; $2,500: Sen. William "Doc" Myers, Joe Arnall, Mike Fasano, Tom Feeney, Mark Flanagan, Howard Futch, Ken Pruitt, Earl Ziebarth, John Cosgrove, Randy Mackey, Rick Minton; $2,250: Sen. Rick Dantzler, Bruno Barreiro, Jerry Melvin, Willie Logan;

$2,000: Faye Culp, Carlos LaCasa, William Sublette, Rudy Bradley, Scott Clemons, Muriel Dawson-White; $1,750: Carl Littlefield, Jeff Stabins, Everett Kelly, Fred Lippman, Buzz Ritchie; $1,700: Bill Posey, Cynthia Chestnut; $1,600: Sens. Roberto Casas and George Kirkpatrick. $1,500: Dennis Jones, Greg Gay, Evelyn Lynn, Adam Putnam, Keith Arnold, Willye Dennis, Lori Edwards, Anne Mackenzie, Beryl Roberts-Burke, Tracy Stafford;

$1,450: Josephus Eggelletion, Anthony Hill; $1,250: Sen. Fred Dudley, Jerry Burroughs, Victor Crist, Luis Morse, Luis Rojas; $1,200: Paula Dockery, John Morroni, Sandy Safley; $1,000: Sens. Toni Jennings, Ron Klein and Pat Thomas, Bill Andrews, Lee Constantine, Rudy Garcia, Jerry Maygarden, Sharon Merchant, Mark Ogles, Jorge Rodriguez-Chomat, Charles Sembler, Carlos Valdes, Annie Betancourt, Janegale Boyd, Irlo Bronson, Lars Hafner, Al Lawson, Kendrick Meek, Les Miller, Kelley Smith;

$750: Alex de la Portilla, Alan Trovillion, Shirley Brown, Jack Tobin; $500: Sens. Mario Diaz-Balart, John Grant, Anna Cowin, Ken Jenne, Patsy Kurth, Burt Saunders, Alex Villalobos, Tom Warner, Elaine Bloom, Mary Brennan, Larcenia Bullard, James Bush III, Margo Fischer, Debra Prewitt, Alzo Reddick, Robert Sindler. $250: Steve Geller, John Rayson, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.

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