As my favorite child-star-turned-embittered-‘90s-femme-rocker might say, “Isn’t it Ironic?”
Naturally I’m talking about Gov. Robert Bentley’s plan to raise taxes and the complaints against it, nothing to do with Alanis Morissette and her various odes to rage against lame “Full House” star Dave Coulier. If I haven’t lost you yet with all the ‘90s references and French names, please stick around.
As I pointed out a few weeks ago, there’s some serious irony in the state electing someone as fiscally conservative as Dr. Governor, only to have him come along and push a tax increase that could be upwards of $540 million. Bentley says the state is $700 million in the hole and he can’t see any way to cut our way to prosperity.
At the same time, those who oppose the increase — ironically members of his own party — claim more cutting needs to be done in order to stave off ruination. They point primarily to Medicaid and the prison system as the two main budget breakers.
But let’s get back to that tax increase. Bentley — a doctor — wants to bring in the vast majority of that new “revenue” by increasing the current tax on cigarettes by about 49 percent. So we have a doctor pinning his hopes on people continuing to smoke at the same rate. At the same time Medicaid costs continue rising. And, you know, cigarettes kind of cause health problems and are generally more popular among people with lower incomes, the very people who might be on Medicaid. Wow.
Meanwhile the governor and many in state government don’t want to take $1.5 billion being offered by the federal government under Obamacare to expand Medicaid, claiming the money would eventually be used up and the state would be left having to pay for it. Yet at the same time, Bentley has said he plans to streamline the current Medicaid program and cause it to stop losing money each year.
So we have a Medicaid program that will increase in cost by $100 million this year that the governor says he can fix, but he can’t take $1.5 billion and make that work. Now I’m getting dizzy.
Just for the record, I’m not a big fan of making Medicaid a lot bigger, BUT that is a lot of money and it just seems given the overall shakiness of Obamacare and Bentley’s confidence he can make Medicaid work, we’d be better off putting that money to work in Alabama before it all gets spent on fighter planes and tax incentives for ISIS members to move to the U.S.
But let’s get back to the basic issue here — Alabama’s tax system. A few weeks ago I wrote about how it makes little sense that we rely on consumption taxes (sales) instead of property taxes, since the former fluctuates so much, making it pretty tough to budget properly. For some reason we seem to have no stomach for flipping the script by raising property taxes and lowering sales tax.
And we also have no stomach for raising revenue by doing something like allowing casinos or a lottery. When I mentioned that a few weeks ago, I got a letter from an eloquent gentleman who called me a “sucker,” among other things. Gambling is bad, you see, and preys upon the poor and causes some people to become addicted.
So it makes more sense to tie our financial well being to something solid and wholesome like smoking cigarettes, because no one gets addicted to cigarettes and the poor seldom buy them. There’s some more irony — the people who don’t want our government funded by a vice such as gambling are Kool with people smoking their lungs out if it helps balance the budget.
I just sort of imagine Joe Camel and the governor sitting down at the conference table to come up with this plan. “Look Gov., if you’ll start letting me include some samples in free school lunches, we can probably get you a great surplus in a year or two.”
Perhaps one could argue legalizing gaming in the state or starting a lottery is the state actively involving itself in the business of sin, but when we’re actually counting on people smoking to make ends meet, how is that much different? At least with gambling no one loses a lung and we won’t have to see any TV commercials where people show holes in their throats or pull out dentures because they lost some money at a blackjack table.
That in and of itself is reason enough for me.
Year after year, every state and federal administration says getting its citizenry to cut back on smoking is a goal. I’m sure somewhere in the Bentley administration there’s someone working to get Alabamians not to smoke so much. But if that person is successful the state will continue to be broke.
Clearly Alabama is going to rely on smoking and mirrors to budget for the rest of time, so why not have a lottery or allow casinos? I would certainly argue anytime someone smokes he’s doing himself a disservice, whereas most of the time people gamble it’s simple entertainment, no different than going to a movie. Besides, no one ever got hurt by second-hand gambling.
I know casinos or a lottery aren’t even being discussed as a solution to our current budget woes, but they should be. Besides helping at the state level, they might even bring some (oh my!) tourists to our little town or solve the issue with our empty cruise terminal.
At the very minimum it seems better than putting our money on how many people will get lung cancer over the next year.