Wednesday, November 07, 2007

What Do You Expect Where The Capital is Salem?

You’ve got to hand it to the people of Oregon, my birthplace, for their consistency. Ten years ago, these generally Blue Staters voted in favor of physician-assisted suicide. Yesterday they voted for suicide without benefit of a doctor.

By a “healthy” margin, they defeated a referendum that would have increased the cigarette tax in order to provide health coverage to 100,000 children – a proposition supported by state PTAs, unions, the American Cancer Society and the health insurance industry. They raised a whopping $3.4 million to publicize their campaign, but it was doomed from the start because the tobacco industry, based in North Carolina and Virginia, poured $12 million into advertising to defeat the measure.

A long time ago, conservatives who wanted to cut budgets without raising taxes would vote to increase “user fees.” A user fee is a tax, something like the cost of license plates or turnpike tolls, based on the principle that those who use publicly maintained highways should pay for the privilege. Calling the process of extracting more money from the people could be called a user fee, revenue enhancement, or, God forbid, a tax. But that’s what it is.

The logic of the subcategory of user fees known as “sin taxes” – the extra you pay for a bottle of liquor or a pack of cigarettes – is a little screwy, though. Because that which you tax should, according to the law of supply and demand, reduce usage. But if people react by using less tobacco, or alcohol, you can’t fund the program the taxes were paying for.

Except when the product is addictive.

So on the one hand, Oregonians wishing to extend health care to uninsured children were counting on more people smoking themselves to death. And on the other hand, the merchants of death known as R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris, were spending their couch change to ensure that they will have fewer customers in the future.

I am not as concerned by the other surprising referendum defeat in liberal New Jersey. There, voters rejected a huge bond issue for the purpose of establishing a stem cell research center. The issue there seems to have been fiscal, rather than moral. But the election of a Democratic president and retention of Democratic majorities in Congress next year should render this decision moot.

Oddly enough, voters in one state approved $3 billion in bond issues over the next 10 years to fund cancer research. What is odd is that the state is Texas – by most measures of social well being right at the bottom of the oil barrel -- and that the champion of this measure was Lance Armstrong, who I have always felt was a couple of links shy on the ethical derailleur.

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