--- Brian Chilson photo
DONE: Rep. Greg Reep signals "clincher" on tax passage.
The tobacco tax, mostly a 56-cent-a-pack increase on cigarettes, finally came to a vote in the House today. Needing 75 votes for passage, it got exactly that on the first ballot, with 24 nays, one not voting. All remained in their seats for the sounding of the ballot to affirm the vote. Here's the roll call.
Rep. Garry Smith of Camden, a Democrat, was the critical 75th vote, voting finally for his constituents over anti-tax talk, other sponsors said. "I voted for 2.9 million people in the state of Arkansas," Smith said. He said he decided last night. Republican leaders said they had thought Smith was a "hard no." (Looking for horse trading? Smith's legislative agenda is currently pretty light, the most obvious trader a bill to further stack the Oil and Gas Commission with industry reps.)
The sponsors knew they had 74 going in. Democratic Rep. J.R. Rogers of Walnut Ridge took a walk on the vote, same effect as a "nay." The two other Democrats voting against better health care were Rep. Pam Adcock who regularly lets down Little Rock interests, and Rep. Stephanie Flowers of Pine Bluff, another representative whose district can ill afford such representation.
The six Republicans who broke with Just Say No orthodoxy were Reps. Rick Green of Van Buren, Robert Dale of Dover, Bill Sample of Hot Springs, Roy Ragland of Marshall, Tim Summers of Bentonville and Rep. Beverly Pyle of Cedarville (which may help explain moderates' rollover to her guns-in-church bill, sent back to committee today for an amendment.)
The bill goes to the Senate, where the lobbying begins anew. (I said incorrectly initially that the measure has sufficient sponsorship for passage. I was confused, thinking of the grocery tax reduction bill.) Huge win today, though, for Gov. Mike Beebe and House Speaker Robbie Wills.
Talk Business has begun doping the Senate. The critical battle could be in committee, where Brock currently counts only four votes in favor, one "no" and others not yet committed. However, one committee member who didn't comment, Terry Smith, is expected to be a firm no. That means that the committee approval could boil down to Larry Teague and Sharon Trusty, D and R respectively.
It will require 27 of 35 senators for passage. The fight hasn't begun. Some expect a more traditional progress to a final vote there. That is, senators on the fence will work it for legislative advantage, perhaps even through a series of more than one vote. One key backer puts the count currently at 22 for the bill, but with little by way of serious work begun.
Rep. Greg Reep, the lead sponsor, opened the brief debate for the tax, citing the familiar talking points -- a trauma system that would save lives and many other expenditures on health care. There were just a few questions. Rep. Frank Glidewell railed against tax increases and big government. He compared pressure for the bill to waterboarding. House Speaker Wills spoke for the bill, beginning with a plea for statesmanship, dignity, decorum and good relationships.
The vote is not about programs or numbers, Wills said, the vote is about "real people," including 475,000 people who receive services at community health centers, many at risk of closure without more money. It's about insurance for 8,000 more children. It's about saving the lives of some 200 people annually through better trauma care. He invoked the trauma care being received by Medical Board chairman Trent Pierce, being treated in Memphis at a hospital that could benefit from Arkansas funding, after a bomb blast yesterday.
Rep. Bryan King, the Republican leader, also opposed the tax, parroting talking points provided by tobacco lobbyists. He's for a trauma system, just not taxes to pay for it.