With Controversial Exemption Withdrawn, Tobacco Tax Hike Set for Thursday Senate Vote

May 18, 2016

A bill to increase the state’s cigarette tax will be put to a final vote in the state Senate Thursday after serious debate over proposed amendments Wednesday.

As introduced on behalf of Gov. Tomblin, the bill would increase the tax on a pack of cigarettes by 45 cents, bump the tax on smokeless tobacco products and create a new tax on e-cigarette liquids. The bill is estimated to bring in more than $70 million annually.

Senate President Bill Cole speaks with Sen. Ron Stollings during the 2016 regular session.
Credit Martin Valent / West Virginia Legislative Photography

As amended in the Senate’s Finance Committee Tuesday, it also dedicates $43.5 million of the new revenues to the Public Employee Insurance Agency, or PEIA, for the 2017 budget year to avoid rate increases for those covered under the plan.

On the Senate floor Wednesday, Senate Health Chair Ryan Ferns proposed an amendment to exclude smokeless tobacco from the proposed additional tax increase, losing more than $4 million in the new revenues.

“It’s our understanding this will be the final version of the bill approved by the House,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael said on the floor. “We’re trying to find a compromise in a hurry and, unfortunately, this is what we need to do.”

Carmichael said he did not support the amendment, he would rather have a $1 increase as proposed by proposed by Democratic Sen. Roman Prezioso in a Senate Finance Committee meeting Tuesday, but the 45 cent increase with the exemptions for smokeless products is what can be approved in the House of Delegates, according to the Majority Leader.

“If you vote green you are voting for big tobacco. If you vote red you are voting for the health and wellness of West Virginians,” Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler said before the vote on the Health Chair’s Amendment. “Everyone is watching, Mr. President.”

Democratic Senator and former Senate Health Chair Ron Stollings accused the leadership of being controlled by the tobacco lobby, pointing to lobbyists sitting in the chamber gallery.

“I’m embarrassed,” Stollings said. “I’m embarrassed the tail is wagging the dog.”

After nearly an hour off debate, Ferns moved to withdraw the amendment. Carmichael said the decision to do so now leaves the burden on the House to amend the bill, but many Democrats refused to suspend the Constitutional rules and put the bill to a final vote Wednesday as had been expected.