The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 5, 2013

Lawmaker survey: Cigarette tax OK

By Dan Linehan

---- — Rep. Paul Torkelson's annual survey of his district's take on hot legislative topic shows that his constituents don't mind tax increases — as long as they're for smokers.

While at least 80 percent of the 500 or so respondents opposed broadening the sales tax or raising a tax on insurance plans, only 29 percent of people opposed raising the cigarette tax by 94 cents a pack.

Torkelson, R-Hanska, opposes all three tax increases.

He said hikes in the cigarette tax tend to decrease overall collections because they encourage consumers to buy their cigarettes on reservations or outside the state. About 19 percent of Americans smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The survey, which was mailed to registered voters and available online, also asked constituents this question: "The Health Insurance Exchange bill proposed by legislators would tax 3.5 percent on your insurance premiums to fund its operations in compliance with the Affordable Care Act. Do you support this health insurance tax increase?"

Only 13 percent of respondents supported the tax, which would only apply to insurance plans bought through the exchange, a sort of insurance marketplace, which will start taking customers Oct. 1. If you get insurance through your employer, you won¹t have to pay the tax unless you work for a small company (fewer than 100 employees) that decides to buy on the exchange.

The Legislature passed the bill creating the exchange in late March, after the survey was sent out.Torkelson also asked his constituents if they think the state should "immediately pay back the money previously borrowed from our schools?"

Eighty-one percent said yes, but Torkelson opposes a House DFL plan to do that because it would create a temporarily higher income tax on joint filers earning more than $500,000. Torkelson said Republicans supported paying back the shift last session using budget reserves. He said reserves would still have been higher than they had been when Republicans took over in 2010.

The six-question survey also asked, in two questions, whether lawmakers should be "forcing" day care providers and personal care attendants to join a union. More than 90 percent answered "no" in each case, though the current version of these bills doesn't force union membership; they allow for votes.

Torkelson said his concern with allowing personal care attendants to form a union is that their salaries would still be paid by the Legislature. In other words, the union would be toothless: Its members could negotiate as a union but its demands may not be met by legislators.

"I'm concerned about the dollars that come out of the state to fund these people's salaries," he said. "I've taken a public stand to encourage them to ... increase these folks' salaries."