This editorial first appeared in The Anchorage Daily News:
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As if the Matanuska-Susitna Borough doesn't have enough financial challenges, here comes another one, served up by Ketchikan state Rep. Jim Elkins. He has introduced a measure that would kill the borough's recently passed tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products. That $1-a-pack levy supplies a badly needed $5 million to the borough, which is desperate for politically acceptable sources of revenue to deliver services in the fastest-growing region of the state.
Rep. Elkins' proposal would also kill a tobacco tax recently passed in Sitka, closer to the representative's home turf, and would bar any other Alaska municipality from ever imposing a tobacco tax.
Alaska's local governments shouldn't have to worry about this kind of heavy-handed meddling from the Capitol. If communities want to discourage tobacco use and improve their finances by taxing tobacco, that's their business. They don't need a know-it-all Big Brother in Juneau telling them they can't.
Rep. Elkins is a Republican, and Republicans supposedly support the notion of local control. In this case, though, the concerns of a special interest apparently carry more weight. One of the state's largest tobacco wholesalers freely admits having a hand in Rep. Elkins' measure. The wholesaler complains that filing all the paperwork and following all those different local tax rules is just too darn burdensome.
Maybe paperwork is a pain. But might the real problem be that stiff local tobacco taxes do what they're intended to do, which is cut into sales of a product that wreaks havoc on the health of people who use it?
It's interesting to note that the wholesaler and his patron, Rep. Elkins, declined to go after the tobacco tax in Anchorage. The city is home to some 40 percent of state legislators, and they make a formidable bloc of potential opponents. Smart call politically. Hard to defend philosophically, though. If local tobacco taxes are so bad that they must be banished in some communities, shouldn't they be eliminated from all communities?
Anchorage had good reason to levy its tax on tobacco. It discourages youths from starting a deadly habit, it encourages current smokers to quit, it helps offset the costs governments bear for smoking-related health care, and it raises money for other services.
No surprise, then, that other Alaska communities might someday decide to follow Anchorage's example. It would be a shame if state lawmakers heeded special interests and took away this important tool for promoting a community's fiscal and human health.