A tobacco tax ordinance passed another hurdle Monday when the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly voted 4-3 in favor of introducing the ordinance. But Assembly members changed the ordinance quite a bit, dedicating no less than half of the net proceeds for smoking cessation or related programs, and agreeing to put the measure in front of voters this October.
The measure still needs to come back to the Assembly for another vote.
Before Assembly action, a number of residents spoke during public comment on the issue. Three people spoke in favor of the $3-per-pack tobacco tax. Terrance Robbins of the Ketchikan Wellness Coalition said tobacco excise taxes are proven to reduce smoking among youth.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about, ‘Is $3 too much? Why do we need a $3 tax?’ The reason is, as I’ve shown you in the past, for every 10 percent that you increase the retail price of a pack of cigarettes, youth smoking rates will drop 7 percent,” he said.
Robbins said Ketchikan’s youth smoking rate is 21.3 percent, which is nearly double the state average.
Five people spoke, some passionately, against the proposed tax, which also would levy a 75-percent tax on the wholesale value of other tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.
Spencer Strassburg owns a downtown store that sells e-cigarettes. He argues that the State of Alaska already has a $2-a-pack excise tax that is supposed to go toward smoking-related programs.
“And now you’re asking for $3 more. And the greatest thing is, you only want to spend 15 percent on the original goal,” he said. “It’s crap, man. Anybody who wants to stand behind this, this is crap. This is crap politics, this is crap taxing. It’s crap.”
The ordinance had called for dedicating 15 percent of the total revenue for smoking programs, with the rest split between the borough and the City of Ketchikan.
During a long, convoluted Assembly debate of the issue, Assembly Member Alan Bailey tried to amend the ordinance to provide 50 percent toward smoking cessation, but only out of the borough’s share of the revenue. Other Assembly members preferred taking 50 percent of the total collected, but there was some question about whether the City of Ketchikan would support that change.
There were various amendments to amend Bailey’s amendment, but eventually, Mayor David Landis ruled it out of order due to confusion.
Assembly Member Bill Rotecki then proposed a new amendment that summarized what most on the Assembly had favored.
“I’d like to make an amendment that this be taken to the voters at the next regular election, and that the 15 percent be changed to 50 percent,” he said.
Assembly Member Mike Painter asked to split the question, which the Assembly agreed to do. The part that sets the matter in front of voters passed unanimously.
Painter then explained why he wanted the part that reserves 50 percent for smoking cessation to be voted on separately. He said he wants the public to vote on the measure in its original “evil” form.
“This is an evil ordinance, borderline criminal,” he said. “You people are doing the dirty work for the city. It is all about the money.”
The amendment passed 5-2, with Painter and Jim Van Horn voting no.
Another amendment, proposed by Assembly Member Glen Thompson, directed management to bring options for a reduced tax rate and a sunset clause to the next meeting. That passed 6-1, with Painter voting no.
The main, amended, motion then passed 4-3, with Thompson, Painter and Van Horn voting no.