by Max Brantley
It's done. The Senate this morning approved the $88 million tobacco tax with a vote to spare, 28-7. A huge victory for Gov. Mike Beebe. All that's left is the signing.
Has there ever been such a contentious piece of legislation passed on the first try in each house? Beebe struck his deals beforehand. No special pleadings by holdouts through multiple votes, as has sometimes been the case. The tax covers all tobacco products, but a 56-cent-a-pack increase in the tax on cigarettes is the major revenue producer.
One Democrat, Jerry Taylor, opposed the tax. In a surprise, Sen. Terry Smith, who'd opposed the bill in committee, voted for it. Two Republicans, Sens. Cecile Bledsoe and Kim Hendren supported the tax, too.
The nays, all Republicans except Jerry Taylor of Pine Bluff by way of a Parallel Universe, were Denny Altes, Gilbert Baker, Johnny Key, Bill Pritchard, Sharon Trusty and Ruth Whitaker.
When will the Repubs find something to be for? That is, besides whomping on gay people and putting the Bible and guns in every nook and cranny of public life. A good question, and before you carp, it was put to me by a common-sense Republican the other day.
Everybody predicted the the tax would come to a vote shortly after the Senate convened at 11 a.m. today. But the bill was last on a long agenda and debate didn't begin until 11:50 a.m. Debate was lean, with only one opponent speaking.
As critics have noted, the bill is to pay for a Christmas tree of health-related programs -- a trauma system, NWA med school, health insurance for kids of working families, more money for Medicaid, community health centers. But the money isn't directly obligated. It amounts, with federal matching for the Medicaid money, to essentially a nearly $200 million boost in state revenue, a powerful stopgap against other potential budget problems in a difficult economic time. It keeps a surplus free for the governor's other uses.
The scheduling of the debate today, the day after committee approval, was taken as an indication that sponsors believed they could produce the 27 votes, or 75 percent of the 35-member Senate, needed for passage.
The pre-debate forecast was that Democrats Smith and Taylor would not support the measure. To reach 27 then, at least two of the Senate's eight Republicans had to support the bill. Sen. Cecile Bledsoe of Rogers was expected to be a "yes" -- the least a Northwest Arkansas lawmaker can do for the med school and other benefits that will flow locally from the money. Sen. Kim Hendren also had made some positive remarks about the bill.
Intriguing in advance coverage were Sen. Gilbert Baker's comments and the implication on a couple of blogs that his vote was still up for grabs. He had led the opposition with an alternative (if insufficient) revenue source for health programs.
Baker could have helped himself by joining the majority. Baker has future political races in mind. He is still thinking about a challenge to U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln in 2010. His recent race for Senate included contributions from tobacco companies.
Would you want to run for U.S. Senate in one of the country's poorest states having voted with the tobacco lobby against a bill that expanded community health treatment, expanded insurance for children and otherwise made broad moves to help people who often can't afford to help themselves medically?
Even I could write the 30-second commercial on that.
Baker told blogger Jason Tolbert shortly before the Senate convened, however, that he was a firm no.
DOUBLE DIPPER -- AND I DON'T MEAN SNUFF: John Williams just ran down a tip for me. Bill Bevis, the former legislator brought onto the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville's lobbying team to curry favor with the country caucus, also is registered as a lobbyist for Reynolds tobacco. The UA System is a major beneficiary of the tobacco tax. Nice work if you can get it.