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Louisiana lawmakers could pass a bill to raise the tobacco tax for the first time in 10 years - and put the state on par with Mississippi 

Year after year, some brave Louisiana legislators try to raise the state cigarette tax, which at 36 cents per pack is third lowest in the country. This year the idea is getting some traction — mostly because of the enormous hole in the state budget.

 State Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, has long advocated hiking the state tax above $1 per pack. That would bring it into line with what other states charge, but it's still far below the $4.35-per-pack tax in New York or the $3.50 tax in Rhode Island. Unfortunately, even bringing it on par with Texas ($1.41 per pack) has proved too much for squeamish legislators.

  In 2013, Ritchie's bill didn't even make it out of the House Ways & Means Com- mittee. State Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, proposed a more modest tax hike of 68 cents that year. Her bill also died in committee.

  That was two years ago — before Louisiana hit the big budget iceberg. This year, Ritchie filed House Bill 77, which would have amended the state constitution to bring the tax to a total of $1.54 per pack. When it was clear that was a no-go, Ways & Means Chairman Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, successfully amended one of Ritchie's other bills, HB 119, so it would tax cigarettes at 68 cents a pack without amending the constitution. This time, Ritchie's bill passed the committee on an 11-5 vote. It now goes to the House floor.

Progress typically comes slowly in Louisiana, and even then in fits and starts.

  If passed, HB 119 would make Louisiana's tobacco tax equal to Mississippi's. This represents progress, if you consider being on par with Mississippi "progress."

  The Louisiana Budget Project (LBP), a left-leaning public policy group that offers recommendations on state spending, supported increasing the tax to $1.25 per pack, estimating it would bring in an additional $230 million per year. The 68-cent-per-pack tax will bring in about one-fourth of that. Many of the LBP's arguments were solid — for instance, Louisiana has not raised its tobacco tax in more than 10 years — but no argument was strong enough to convince lawmakers to bump the price of a pack of smokes by more than a dollar. That was why Robideaux amended the bill before it could be voted down.

  Progress typically comes slowly in Louisiana, and even then in fits and starts. In 2011, when a temporary 4-cents-per-pack tax was set to expire, a bill was introduced to renew it. Four cents was an amount low enough for legislators of both parties to support, especially when consumers wouldn't have noticed the difference (they'd been paying the 4 cents for a while). Nevertheless, Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed the renewal, calling it a tax increase. Lawmakers responded by amending a proposed constitutional amendment to restore the 4-cents-a-pack tax, thereby circumventing Jindal's veto. In recent months, Jindal has said he would support increasing cigarette taxes — if they were offset with cuts elsewhere to become "revenue-neutral." We hope lawmakers muster the votes to override a veto should it come to that.

  For those content to merely be on par with Mississippi, HB 119 in its current form fits the bill. In the end, though, it merely keeps us on par with Mississippi.

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