CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Leaders of two major state Senate committees, along with Senate President Jeff Kessler, are backing a bill that would raise state cigarette taxes by one dollar beginning this July.
The legislation, introduced during Thursday's floor session, would increase per-pack taxes from 55 cents to $1.55. It also would increase taxes on other tobacco products from seven percent of the wholesale price to 50 percent of the wholesale price.
Senate Health and Human Resources Chairman Ron Stollings, D-Boone, is the lead sponsor of the bill. He said the measure would generate more than $120 million in additional revenues for the state.
Senate Finance Chairman Roman Presiozo, D-Marion, and Kessler, D-Marshall, are co-sponsoring the bill along with Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha. And while the sponsors may have a lot of clout in the upper chamber, the bill's chances still look slim.
"It'll be an uphill fight," Kessler said.
And while tax increases are always controversial, Kessler said Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's "no new taxes" pledge during his State of the State address in February could make passing this bill even more difficult.
Cigarette tax increases do not have a good track record in the West Virginia Legislature.
Two years ago, legislators killed a McCabe-backed bill to increase cigarette taxes to offset the state's $8 billion "other post employment benefits," or OPEB, debt.
Prezioso introduced a bill in last year's session to increase the per-pack tax by $1. The legislation never made it past the Senate's Health and Human Resources Committee.
Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, is more hopeful.
He said a tight budget year, coupled with falling tax revenues, is making an increase to cigarette taxes look better and better to senators and delegates alike.
"All of these things are causing us to rethink where we are financially," he said. "I don't like to use the term 'perfect storm,' but I think it's accurate."
State budget officials are now predicting a $60-70 million shortfall before the end of the fiscal year in June. Perdue said Tomblin already has requested state agencies cut their budgets by 7.5 percent. With not much else to cut, he said the state will have to seek out new revenues.