The Riggs Report: A smoking ballot fight

Tobacco tax campaign launches

Fueled by big contributions from billionaire Tom Steyer and others, a measure to raise the tobacco tax in California by $2 a pack now appears to be on a straight road to the November ballot.

Steyer, along with state Sen. Richard Pan and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, are part of a coalition that showed up at Sacramento’s McClatchy High School on Wednesday to announce the launch of a petition drive to qualify the measure.

Almost 600,000 valid voter signatures will be needed to meet the ballot threshold. It’s always possible that a deal could still be hatched in the Legislature to raise the cigarette tax, causing sponsors to take a detour from that straight road and abandon the ballot measure.

Spearheaded by Pan, efforts to reach an agreement are still underway as part of a special legislative session that Gov. Jerry Brown called last fall.

Possible, yes, but it doesn’t appear likely. Tobacco interests were successful last year in preventing the Legislature from approving a Pan bill to raise the tax, despite aggressive efforts by the American Cancer Society to target lawmakers who accept tobacco industry contributions. That measure, SB 591, remains parked in an active file but is eligible for future votes.

Striking a deal at the Capitol requires a two-thirds vote, meaning support would be necessary from moderate Democrats as well as Republicans who typically want nothing to do with a tax increase. Assuming those efforts collapse, the tobacco tax coalition would be free to pursue an expensive statewide vote.

The proposed measure would raise money to pay for anti-smoking programs, medical research, and health care services for low income Californians. It would also apply a tobacco tax to electronic cigarettes.

How expensive a campaign would the ballot measure unleash? Just look to the most recent example. The last time a tobacco tax was on the ballot was in June of 2012, when supporters spent over $12 million and opponents spent almost $47 million.

Proposition 29, which would’ve levied a $1 per pack tax increase, was defeated by less than half a percentage point when all the balloting was counted.

California is already facing what promises to be an unusually crowded ballot this fall. The brewing tobacco fight just adds more fire to the drama in 2016.