Why You Should Vote No Against Amendment 72 to Raise Tobacco Taxes

Editor's note: As part of our continuing election coverage, we're taking a closer look at amendments and propositions that will be on the Colorado ballot in November. Yesterday, we posted "Why You Should Vote Yes on Amendment 72 to Raise Tobacco Taxes," featuring an interview with a proponent of the measure. Today, we highlight a Q&A with a representative of the opposition.

Amendment 72 would increase state taxes on tobacco products. For example, the tax on cigarettes would go up by $1.75 per pack under the theory that the higher cost will prevent children from starting to smoke and encourage current smokers to quit.

In the following interview, Karen Crummy, spokeswoman for No Blank Checks in the Constitution, the main Amendment 72 opposition group, presents arguments against the tax and responds to issues raised by proponents, including criticism of the tobacco industry's role in fighting the measure.

The transcript is supplemented by material from the No on Amendment 72 Facebook page, as well as links and occasional insertions for purposes of fact-checking and clarification.

Why should people vote against Amendment 72?

The first, and I would say the most important, reason to vote against 72 is because it locks $315 million in new spending into the state constitution, which means there's no way to change it without another statewide vote. The other thing is, you have $315 million in new programs and new spending, and a lot of these programs have yet to be determined. They haven't even written the guidelines for more than 51 percent of them. And once these programs are locked in, if in fact this program does what its proponents say it will do, which is to decrease smoking, that means the tax money would decrease. And where would we get the $315 million to fund those programs? You'd have to assume it would be transferred onto the taxpayers.

The proponents say that as the amount of revenues goes down, the amount of funding would go down in direct proportion. Is that not spelled out in the language of the amendment in a way that makes your organization comfortable?

No, I don't think it is. Are they saying that they're going to start a new program, and as the tax revenue goes down, that program is going to get less and less money and they're not going to make it up anywhere else? That seems to be a recipe for disaster. I'm not sure how you can do grant projects and some of the other things they're proposing to do when you have no stable resources coming in. That, to me, seems like just as big a problem as if the money is decreasing.

The other thing is, the proponents say this is about stopping smoking. But less than 20 percent of the money is going to smoking-cessation programs. If they're really serious about helping these people — and this is a regressive tax that's going to hit the poor the hardest — you'd think they'd be out there trying to help them stop smoking instead of some of these other pet programs they want. Stopping smoking is difficult. Having 16 percent of the money going to those programs doesn't seem to be enough.

What are some of the other programs that you see as problematic — ones you'd prefer to see the money earmarked for them going to smoking-cessation programs?

I don't know if I'd cherry-pick ones. Stopping people from smoking is something we probably all want, especially if you have loved ones who smoke. And some of the programs, no one's going to argue that they're not laudable projects. Having grants to forgive doctors' loans, for instance. But the issue is, what does it have to do with smoking and helping people stop smoking? There's nothing in this measure that goes toward what Colorado voters continually say are the most important issues facing the state right now: infrastructure, bridges, roads, immigration, education. One of the grants goes to study the effects of smoking. It's been sixty years, and I think a lot of research has already been done on that.

You mentioned the $315 million that would be locked into the constitution if Amendment 72 passes. Would you have less of an objection if this measure had been statutory as opposed to constitutional?

If it was a statutory measure, if something about it wasn't working — if there was fraud or abuse or the programs weren't being funded properly, or if people decided they wanted more of the money to go to smoking-cessation programs — you could actually do something about that. But all too often, as we know in Colorado, it's just as easy to get an amendment to the constitution on the ballot as it is a statutory change. And the reason for that is, once it's in, it's virtually impossible to get it out.

The proponents of this measure talk about a previous smoking-related tax measure from twelve years ago, Initiative 35, and how a lot of the objections opponents are raising about this measure didn't come to pass with that one. Is that, to you, a valid argument for trusting that the implementation of Amendment 72 will go smoothly as well?

I don't know enough about 35 to know how it worked and how it didn't work. Obviously, our focus is on this constitutional amendment. And one of the agencies that's responsible for awarding these grants is the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. They've been cited in the past as needing stronger conflict-of-interest policies. Again, if they do something that's wasteful or fraudulent — and I'm not saying they will, but if they did — you'd have to have another constitutional amendment to get rid of the previous constitutional amendment.

Opponents also talk about the No on 72 campaign being funded by the tobacco industry. Is the industry funding the campaign in its entirety? And if so, should it matter where the money is coming from when discussing these issues?

Altria Client Services is donating the money to this effort. [Ballotpedia records more than $17 million in contributions from Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, to No Blank Checks in the Constitution.] It's to educate voters on why this measure is wrong for Colorado. But I would say we have a slew of Republicans, Democrats, business leaders, community groups and taxpayer organizations that are also opposing this measure. They're from throughout the state and include everyone from Action 22 to the Colorado Women's Alliance to the National Taxpayers Union to the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police. Many of the reasons I just talked about are the reasons why.

Taking the Fraternal Order of Police, the reason they're against it is, when you triple the cigarette tax, you open up the state to smuggling, cigarette smuggling. And that just taxes the law enforcement resources away from them.

[Here's a No on 72 ad.]

Do you believe the tax would be so high that it would inspire cigarette smuggling from neighboring states?

The Department of State has actually come out before and talked about tobacco products being smuggled into other states and other jurisdictions. We've seen it in other states. New York's probably the biggest example. [This 2015 Village Voice article provides more details.] But there are states surrounding us, like Utah, Wyoming and Arizona that have lower taxes, and law enforcement thinks the cigarettes would come in from there. They have a concern, because they already have strapped resources. Having to transfer resources into dealing with this issue is something they're just not prepared for.

The proponents of Amendment 72 also argue that the tobacco industry fights every tax proposal like this one across the country, using different strategies for each one. Their supposition is, the tobacco industry doesn't really care about people stopping smoking or it being a regressive tax on low-income people. The industry only cares about losing business. What's your response to that?

I think it's easy to point fingers at the tobacco industry and say all they care about is money. It's an easier way to make an argument than looking at what the constitutional amendment they're proposing actually says. The fact is, we have this coalition of so many different groups, with current and former lawmakers. These people aren't opposing the measure because they're trying to help the cigarette industry. They're opposing this measure because it's bad for Colorado. It locks this multimillion-dollar spending initiative into the constitution.

You've touched on the constitutional issue a couple of times. Do you see Amendment 72 as a constitutional abuse of the sort that the Raise the Bar amendment [also known as Amendment 71] is trying to eliminate or decrease?

I don't want to go down the Raise the Bar road. But Colorado's constitution has been changed 150 times over the years. And what that measure is trying to do is look at things like this measure and others that would lock things into the constitution when voters would be much better served through statutory changes.

Are there ways this money could be more effectively used to prevent smoking, or prevent people from starting to smoke?

Given that less than 20 percent of the money goes to helping people stop smoking, there would certainly be an argument that more could be done. One of the things you can look at is the tobacco settlement money. Colorado received more than $1.3 billion in money from the settlement over the years, and a lot of that revenue went to unrelated government programs, kind of the way this does. If they're really serious about doing what they say they're doing, there would be more outreach into helping people stop.