Proposition 29, the tobacco tax measure on the June 5 ballot, makes for a hard choice. I have no problem with raising tobacco taxes. California needs the revenue, and higher tobacco taxes would save lives by discouraging smoking. But using the new revenue for cancer research makes no sense at all. America already spends billions on that research, and California has higher priorities.
What to do? Here is where the Legislature could help us out, and at the same time show a bit bipartisanship.
Lawmakers may disagree about taxes, but I doubt a single member of the Assembly or the Senate believes that cancer research is a higher priority than funding schools and colleges. After all, what is the sense of funding cancer research in a state where you can't even educate children about science or produce the next generation of scientists?
So let the Legislature put a new measure on the November ballot. Call it the Tobacco Tax Recovery and Education Restoration Act of 2012. Let it provide for shifting all of the tobacco taxes enacted in the three initiatives of the last several decades—Props 88, 10, and 29—to the general fund. Let it state the Legislature’s intent to use the money to restore funding for schools and colleges cut over the last several years.
Such a measure would have several important effects.
First, it would let voters have the choice Prop 29 doesn’t provide: of raising tobacco taxes but sending the money to their most important priority.
Second, it would send a cautionary message to potential sponsors of ballot-box budgeting initiatives. It would tell them that they cannot loot the California revenue base with impunity, that the Legislature will fight back to assure the voters have a choice about how new revenues should be used. That’s a message that should appeal to Republicans and Democrats alike.