Governor Looses Battle on Tobacco Taxes But He May Yet Win the Fight
Governor Perdue successfully united Georgia?s partisan legislature on Wednesday; unfortunately, it was in an effort to defeat his tobacco tax proposal.  Governor Perdue?s initiative would have raised the tax on cigarettes by 46 cents and generated about $350 million in revenue for the state which is facing a $620 million deficit.  The measure was overwhelmingly defeated by a vote of 127-47.  

However, on Thursday the bill was resurrected when the same body agreed to reconsider the legislation at a later date.  The bill now goes back to the Rules Committee and gives the leadership in both parties an opportunity to work out their differences.

One veteran committee chairman said about the future of the Governor?s tobacco tax, ?Its like a twilight zone, no one knows what is going to happen.?  Another legislator who voted for the tax increase commented, ?The only reason people voted against it was politics, and it?s Sonny?s politics that are creating the real problem.?  

As an alternative, some Democrats are proposing a one year, one cent increase in the state?s sales tax to help raise the necessary revenue.  This alternative appears to be receiving greatest support from Representative David Lucus, Chairman of the Public Utilities and Telecommunications Committee.  Some legislators are offended not only by the extremely regressive nature of the sales tax increase but, are also put off by Chairman Lucas?s unabashed attempt to protect a hometown tobacco company, Brown and Williamson.

The fate of the tobacco tax may rest in the hands of the Republican House leadership.  If the Governor successfully convinces the members of his own party to support him, the Democrats will likely change their position.
Redistricting Passes Senate
The Republican controlled Senate passed a bill that would redraw the legislative boundaries for the state that were passed last year when both bodies were under Democratic control.  The Senate plan removes many of the oddly shaped districts that were drawn to give the Democrats an advantage at the polls.  

Some Republicans in the Senate have threatened the Democratically controlled House to pass the redistricting plan.  If the House refuses, some in the Senate have said they will refuse to consider any of the bills the House sends over.  This could prompt gridlock in the remaining ten days of the legislative session.  
Tort Reform Passes Without Caps
On Thursday, the Senate approved a bill to reform personal injury lawsuits in Georgia without setting a cap of $250,000 on non-economic damages, a key provision in the original legislation.  The cap was argued for by doctors, hospitals and insurance companies which have complained of the ?lottery sized? payouts that some victims receive in the state.  Physicians and hospitals argue that the large settlements are forcing doctor?s insurance rates to rise beyond a point where it is prudent for them to continue practicing in Georgia.

The bill that passed continues to provide for important changes in the way malpractice suits can be litigated, while mandating stricter standards for expert witnesses who are called to testify in jury trials.
State Revenues Continue to Slump
State revenue collections for February were 5.2% lower than the same month a year ago.  Total collections for the first eight months of fiscal year 2003 were down nearly $300 million or 3.4% from the same period a year ago.
Workplace Safety
Look for workplace safety to be an issue at both the state and federal levels in the future.  This week the Atlanta Business Chronicle lambasted one of Georgia?s most respected companies, United Parcel Service, for inadequate workplace safeguards.  Fellow Atlanta based company, Home Depot has also been criticized for its poor safety record.  Reece & Associates expects this issue to attract attention from policy makers.  
Raising the Tobacco Tax: The Right Thing to Do on Both Sides of the Aisle

Governor Sonny Perdue has suggested a bold and progressive tobacco tax proposal that will bolster both Georgia?s financial and physical heath.  The Governor?s proposal is sound public policy and should receive bi-partisan support by our elected representatives in the General Assembly.  

Governor Perdue?s proposal to increase the state?s excise tax on tobacco products -- raising the cost of a pack of cigarettes by 46 cents -- would generate up to $348 million per year in much-needed tax revenues for the people of Georgia.  Furthermore, it would encourage Georgians, both young and old, to stop purchasing products that kill over 10,000 people in our state every year.  

Supporting the Governor?s proposal is the right decision for the members of the General Assembly, regardless of political affiliation.  All Georgians are faced with the economic and emotional toll of  tobacco-related illnesses.  The Governor?s proposal will benefit everyone, regardless of whether they happen to live in a district represented by Democrats or Republicans.

Here?s how:  

In addition to the untold costs of human suffering, tobacco-related illnesses cost Georgians an estimated $1.75 billion in direct health care costs ? medical and long-term care for lung cancer, emphysema, and other smoking-related problems.  Taxpayers in our state pick up a large portion of this bill, an estimated $419 million in state Medicaid dollars alone, just for tobacco-related illnesses.  That?s about $50 for every man, woman and child in our state.  (Incidentally, these figures do not include healthcare costs for children affected by second-hand smoke.)

Yet Georgians may be surprised to learn that the average retail price of tobacco products in Georgia is well below the national average.  People who smoke pay an average of $3.31 for a pack of cigarettes in our state, 54 cents less than the national average.  Of this purchase price, only a bit more than a dime, 12 cents, is collected as a part of the state?s tobacco tax, making Georgia?s tax among the lowest in the nation.

Meanwhile, our state faces a financial crisis.  The revenue shortfall in this year?s budget is over $600 million.  For the past several weeks, experienced, skilled lawmakers have been pulling their hair out trying to generate proposals to fill the gap in our state?s budget.  A tobacco tax increase will help generate the necessary revenue ? while also discouraging the use of these deadly products.  

Studies have shown that higher costs for tobacco products definitely help stop people from using them.  According to the American Lung Association, for every ten percent increase in the price of a pack of cigarettes, seven percent fewer teenagers start smoking.  A federal heath commission report submitted to the Bush Administration recently showed the same ten percent price increase results in a four percent lowering of the overall smoking rate for both adults and teens.

Just as they cannot sit idle during a severe budget crisis, our elected representatives in the General Assembly should not sit idle while thousands of Georgians suffer and die each year from preventable tobacco-related illnesses.  The simplest and most effective way for lawmakers to help solve our budget crisis and improve the health of their constituents is the Governor?s tobacco tax proposal.  

I strongly urge the members of the General Assembly to cast aside partisan concerns, follow the Governor?s lead, and approve an increase in the tobacco tax.  Furthermore, at this juncture it is imperative that the Republican caucus in the House support their Governor and take leadership on this issue.  Unless and until Republican leaders take this step, Democratic legislators will continue to feel politically unable to do so.  

Yes, this measure is a tax increase, at least for the percentage of Georgians who smoke.  And yes, its passage may diminish retail tobacco sales at some convenience stores.  
So be it.  For the vast majority of Georgians, a vote for the tobacco tax is a vote to increase state funding for human services and myriad other needs, a vote to decrease healthcare expenses, and a vote to help alleviate the human suffering caused by tobacco products.   For these reasons, it?s the right thing to do ? on both sides of the aisle.      
Influence on the Rise: A Feature Column in Georgia Politics?Representative Johnny Isakson
Representative Johnny Isakson, a moderate Republican from Cobb County, is viewed as the frontrunner for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Zell Miller in 2004.  Isakson, a successful businessman, founded Northside Reality, which until its merger with Coldwell Banker was one of the largest real estate brokerage companies in America.  

Representative Isakson was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1976.  There he served for seven terms, rising to the post of Minority Leader.  He ran for Governor in 1990 and lost to Zell Miller.  He then switched over to the Georgia Senate and served two terms.  He was elected to the U.S. House in a special election to replace former Speaker Newt Gingrich on February 23, 1999.  

Isakson has quickly made a name for himself as a respected leader in Washington.  In 2003, he ascended to the House leadership when he was selected by his peers to become a Deputy Majority Whip.

Isakson has run for the U.S. Senate before.  In 1996 he lost in a primary to Guy Milner, who was defeated by Max Clealand.  For this campaign Isakson has tried to win support within his own party early in the contest.  Isakson would likely face his toughest battle if a more conservative, pro-life Republican seriously challenges him in the primary.  Consequently, he is working hard to fundraise and sure up support early in the campaign.  At the beginning of his campaign he has an impressive  $1.1 million dollars in his account.  

Al Bartell, a 2002 candidate for lieutenant governor is the only announced Republican challenger for Isakson.  Bartell, a Republican from Cartersville, received 12 percent of the vote in a three-way GOP primary.
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