- Associated Press - Saturday, May 21, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Republican leaders in West Virginia’s House of Delegates face a hurdle in a likely tobacco tax vote: 25 of the chamber’s 100 lawmakers have signed pledges not to raise taxes under almost all circumstances.

Several of those lawmakers are still finding ways to support a 45-cent per-pack tax increase on cigarettes, and higher taxes on other tobacco products and e-cigarettes, which would yield $78 million annually; or, about $71.5 million if just the cigarette hike passes.

Support from some of the tax pledge contingency could be crucial, as House leaders, including Speaker Tim Armstead, search for 51-plus votes on the measure early next week. It squeaked by in a 17-16 Senate vote this week, with 15 of 16 Democrats voting against it.

The extra money won’t solve the $270 million hole that remains in the budget. But it’s the only tax hike that appears to stand a chance in the GOP-led Legislature. Covering the rest likely will come through cuts and sweeps from state reserves.

Opposition to the tax hike is coming from multiple directions. Many Democrats also don’t support it, saying the tax should be raised higher, by $1 per pack of cigarettes, worth $115 million. The current tax is 55 cents a pack.

“Certain members, obviously, have the no-tax pledge,” said Del. Eric Nelson, a Kanawha County Republican, House budget chairman and supporter of the tobacco tax hike. “Other members - ‘Let’s do it all with taxes.’ And then there’s the group in between.”

Americans for Tax Reform says voting for tax increases is fine if it’s tied to an offsetting tax cut of at least equal size. Generally, the offset must be spelled out in the same bill. And a tax increase can only be offset by a tax cut within a reasonable time window, not over years.

Still, several delegates say they can vote for the tobacco tax with a clear conscience.

Del. Cindy Frich, R-Monongalia, pointed to potential health benefits. She also said she can vote for it because she voted for offsetting tax decreases this year, and in years past. For example, the Legislature voted this year to drop a secondary tax on mining coal and drilling for natural gas, worth about $113 million in the 2017 budget year. The money has been used to pay back a workers’ compensation debt.

Others pointed to the urgency of the situation. If there’s no budget in place July 1, an unprecedented government shutdown could occur.

“I think it’s better to put in that tax than to have utter chaos,” said Del. Saira Blair, R-Berkeley.

Some delegates shrugged off the pledge entirely.

“The pledge doesn’t mean a damn thing to me,” Del. Roy Cooper, R-Summers, told the Beckley Register-Herald. “Grover Norquist can kiss my hind-end.” Norquist is head of Americans for Tax Reform.

Many lawmakers are likely to oppose the bill, particularly in an election year, setting up a potentially tight vote.

West Virginia’s cigarette tax is 55 cents, and would go up to $1 under the current bill. Kentucky’s is 60 cents and Virginia’s is 30 cents, while Pennsylvania and Ohio charge $1.60.

Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin called lawmakers into session Monday. Each day of session costs $35,000. They will return after the weekend for a sixth day.

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