Prezioso said there's a "debate within a debate" over how to spend the money.
The bill sets aside half the revenue to go to health care-related expenses and provides about $27 million specifically for smoking cessation programs. But the vagueness on how the rest of the money will be spent has provided an opening for interest groups.
The House Health and Human Resources Committee was set to consider the tax bill during a regular committee meeting Wednesday afternoon. But one lobbyist asked the committee to hold a public hearing on the bill so one of his clients could make their case at the hearing for some of the money to go their way.
The lobbyist, Tom Susman, represents the West Virginia Behavioral Health Care Providers Association. The group of community health care providers could use more money to help provide care for drug abusers.
"We don't have an infrastructure in this state that is necessary to take care of the issues we have," Susman said. "You can't lock everybody up, you can't build enough jails."
The public hearing will likely occur in the middle of next week. The Coalition for a Tobacco-Free West Virginia also asked for a hearing to draw attention to their issues.
House Health and Human Resources Committee Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, acknowledged there was infighting over how to spend the money from the would-be tax. It "changes probably daily," he said.
"The first thing we have to establish is, 'Can it pass?' " he said.
Its chances could hinge in part on what coalition forms to support the bill and who gets what money. At the top of the food chain, acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has said he does not plan to raise taxes, though a spokesman could not immediately comment Wednesday evening about the cigarette tax.
One group that opposes the tax outright is the West Virginia Wholesalers Association.
John Hodges, the executive director, said his group opposes any kind of new tax because it could hurt business and drive customers to other states.
"People will travel to buy cigarettes or smokeless tobacco, either one, to save that kind of money," he said.
State cigarette taxes are lower in Kentucky, where they are currently 60 cents per pack, and Virginia, where taxes are at 30 cents per pack, though local governments also tax in Virginia. The taxes are higher in Maryland, where they are $2; Pennsylvania, at $1.60; and, currently, Ohio, where the tax is $1.25.
Prezioso said $1.55 a pack seems to be the "tipping point"— just high enough to make some quit but low enough to make sure everybody doesn't quit. If they did, the state would end up losing money, at least in the short term.
"It really sounds hypocritical — that you're raising taxes to procure dollars as a health issue but you're doing it to raise dollars," he said.
Prezioso added, "The real deal would be to raise it to $3 and make people quit smoking — but you're not making any money."
Contact writer Ry Rivard at ry.
riv...@dailymail.com or 304-348-1796.