SOUTH PORTLAND – Two candidates for governor on Friday said they would support an increase in the cigarette tax, while two others said they would have to consider the idea within the context of the economy and other taxes.
Independents Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott told the American Lung Association of Maine at a forum that they would support an increase in the tax in an effort to get more people — especially teens — to kick the habit.
“Let’s increase that tobacco tax as long as the dollars go where they are intended,” Moody said during an hourlong forum at the Sable Oaks Marriott.
“I have advocated for an increase in the tobacco tax,” he said. “I think that would be one way to moderate some behavior.”
But the other two candidates who attended — Democrat Libby Mitchell and independent Eliot Cutler — were less inclined to embrace an immediate hike.
“This might not be the right time to raise a cigarette tax,” Mitchell said. “However, as governor I would not rule it out.”
Cutler said increases in the gas tax and cigarette tax need to be considered “on a case-by-case basis.”
“We must build the strongest possible fences around those receipts so they are not used for broader purposes,” he said.
Republican Paul LePage did not attend the forum, but said at a debate in September that he would oppose a cigarette tax hike. LePage press secretary Dan Demeritt said Friday that campaign meetings prevented LePage from attending the forum, but that the Waterville mayor would consider lowering the cigarette tax if the state could afford the loss in revenue. However, his initial focus would be on reducing the income tax and the tax on pensions, he said.
The issue of whether to raise the cigarette tax is a perennial one at the State House, where groups such as the Tobacco-Free Kids Action Fund and others often advocate for increases to try to keep teens from buying cigarettes.
Statistics circulated by the group on Friday reported that tobacco use claims 2,200 Maine lives each year and costs the state more than $600 million in health care costs annually. It’s estimated 18 percent of the state’s high school students are smokers.
The forum, moderated by Mal Leary of Capitol News Service, also covered other health care topics, such as the new federal reforms and state-level health offices.
The candidates were asked whether they would continue to keep the state’s Office of Health Policy and Finance within the executive branch. Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, created the office at the beginning of his administration in 2003.
“We need the office of health policy now more than ever as we transition from Dirigo to a new (federal) exchange,” Mitchell said. “You have to have leadership and it has to come from the executive level.”
Cutler said the new governor should choose strong commissioners who could lead such efforts within their own departments.
“I tend not to believe we ought to have czars and czarinas,” he said.
Scott and Moody both said they would keep the office. Moody said he would “move it in a new direction.”
“We can’t wait until 2014,” he said, referring to the year when most of the federal reforms will go into effect. “We’re in a crisis right now.”