A boroughwide tobacco tax was approved in a split vote Monday by the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly, and will go in front of borough voters this fall for ratification.
The ordinance had been indefinitely postponed during the Assembly’s last meeting, but was brought back Monday for reconsideration.
The measure was amended quite a bit before it was adopted. One thing that stayed the same is the tax level: $2 per pack, or 50 percent of the wholesale cost of other tobacco products.
The biggest change to the ordinance is that instead of sharing the revenue with the City of Ketchikan, the borough will keep it all. Fifteen percent of that revenue will be dedicated to tobacco cessation programs, and the rest will go into the Ketchikan School District reserve fund.
Another change is that the ordinance will sunset in five years, unless voters re-ratify it. The sunset was proposed by Assembly Member Glen Thompson, who has consistently opposed a tobacco tax. He said if it’s working, then voters will support keeping it in place.
“We’ve been told that this is going to be magic fairy dust and unicorn powder, and we’re not going to have anybody smoking,” he said. “Hopefully if this thing actually works, we won’t have any tax revenue to put into the school reserve fund. So, I think it should be revisited after giving it a period of time. And if it’s working, we can keep it in place – or the voters can. If it’s not, it can automatically sunset and go away.”
Assembly Member Bill Rotecki argued that this “experiment” has proven effective in other communities.
“Sitka’s been doing their experiment since ’06; Juneau since ’03; Anchorage since 1991; Fairbanks since 1993,” he said. “I think the experiment has already been conducted, which is why I was supportive of it. There is factual evidence that this will reduce teen smoking.”
The sunset clause passed 4-3, with Rotecki and Assembly Members Stephen Bradford and Felix Wong voting no.
The tobacco tax itself passed 5-2 with Assembly Members Mike Painter and Alan Bailey voting no. Thompson joined Rotecki, Bradford, Wong and John Harrington to vote in favor of the ordinance.
Sometimes, members will vote against their personal inclination in order to be on the prevailing side. That way, they can bring a decision back for reconsideration. However, this ordinance – because it was brought back once already– cannot be reconsidered again.
The ordinance does still need voter approval, and will be included on the borough ballot for the regular Oct. 4 municipal election.
Also Monday, the Assembly voted to operate the free downtown shuttle for tourists, but only through the end of June. There was concern that the state will stop sharing cruise head tax funds with municipalities, and the borough uses those funds to subsidize the shuttle service.
The issue will come back to the Assembly on June 6, in hopes that the state will have made a decision by then.
The next regular Borough Assembly meeting is April 18.