Mob Rule

I-185 is basically a more extreme version of a bill that failed in the 2017 Legislature

By Dave Skinner

Election Day is in sight, Nov. 6. If you’re already registered, expect your Montana Voter Information Pamphlet the first week of October. If not, regular registration (where you can request an absentee ballot) ends Oct. 9, with absentee ballots going out Oct. 12.

Besides the candidates, we’ve got four ballot issues, including Initiative 185, called “Healthy Montana.”

Under current law, Montana currently collects $13 million from chewers and $69 million from smokers, each year. According to the Legislative Fiscal Division, over half goes to a special revenue fund for Montana DPHHS (Department of Public Health and Human Services), 5.5 percent to five tribes, and 41 percent into the general fund.

I-185 is basically a more extreme version of a bill that failed in the 2017 Legislature. Sponsored by state Sen. Mary Caferro (D-Helena), that bill tried to jump cigarette taxes to $3.20 a pack, supposedly to fund Medicaid expansion.

But her bill also put scads of extra money, after select mandates, into the general fund. At least six “moderate Republicans” – Llew Jones, Duane Ankney, Brian Hoven, Dan Salomon, Tom Richmond and Jeff Welborn helped pass the bill out of the Senate – but once in the House, the bill died an ugly procedural death.

Now, I-185 builds on Caferro’s attempt. Above all, I-185 makes Medicaid expansion in Montana permanent, as current law expires in June 2019. Who will pay? The one-fifth of Montanans who either smoke (about 16 percent), vape (unknown), or chew (about 4 percent). Cigarettes would be hit with a tax being the “greater” of $3.70 per pack, or 83 percent of wholesale (up from 50 percent). Snoose (and yep, I chew Copenhagen) will jump from about a buck a can to $3.70 as well, while now-untaxed vapor products will see an 83 percent hit.

Ouch, right?

Where would this $74 million, plus the existing $84 million, then go? Well, some is targeted first for requirements of the 2015 Medicaid expansion law: $26 million a year for Medicaid matching, $3 million for tobacco prevention, $2 million for Montana’s veterans’ homes, $5 million for Medicaid services waivers (in home Medicaid care), around $36 million total. The rest? Another 44 percent to Medicaid, another $2 million to veterans, and under 3 percent to “long-range building” funding. That leaves, if I figured it correctly, $53 million annually in new play dough for the general fund. 

Such big money means big money for and against, basically Big Medicine versus Big Tobacco.

Supporters: AARP, American Cancer Society, Baron and Budd (Texas toxic-tort attorneys), Montana Human Rights Network, Blue Cross Blue Shield, the Service Employees International Union, with the Montana Hospital Association apparently the largest backer at around $198,000 total as of the August filings. The campaign itself is led by Tara Veasey, former healthy policy advisor to Gov. Steve Bullock.

On the other side is, yep, Altria Client Services and RAI Services (RAI stands for Reynolds American International). In August, the dough really started to flow, with a $4.6 million “loan” from Altria. News reports now say tobacco has paid in $8.8 million so far.

As for Montana “grassroots,” campaign records show only seven people in all of Montana making a contribution to either side, none over $100.

So, how am I gonna vote on this? No, for several reasons:

One is selfish – I chew. A 350 percent tax increase? No thanks.

Second, I-185 is a complex mess. Legislators might understand it, but most of us don’t. It’s nine pages of obscurantist legalese gobblygook, and I’ll bet my favorite rifle that at least 98 of 100 petition signers never read a word of any of it.

Third, I-185 doesn’t stick to supporting Medicaid. There are millions left over that politicians will abuse to buy votes.

Finally, many might be tempted to vote for I-185 because, as proponents say, “You won’t pay.” But I refuse to forget we live in a republic with checks and balances intended to protect not only cultural, but electoral minorities. Hammering any small minority with punitive taxes to pay for goodies a “majority” hopes to get for free isn’t democracy, but rather mob rule.

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