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Measure 50: Tobacco Tax For Healthy Kids Or Constitutional Rewrite?

Cigarettes are often viewed as an easy target for tax-hungry governments.

Measure 50 on the November ballot raises state tobacco taxes to pay for the Healthy Kids Program.  But this tobacco tax  is giving some people second thoughts.

That’s because the tax would end up in the state’s constitution.  Salem correspondent Chris Lehman explains.

You probably learned about the U.S. Constitution in school.

You know about how it sets up three branches of government.  You know about the Bill of Rights, and maybe you can even recite the preamble.  But how much do you know about state constitutions?

They sound a lot like the U.S. Constitution.  Things like freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  But Oregon's Constitution goes a little further than that.

Portland attorney Charlie Hinkle says the same document that guarantees you freedom of religion also guarantees you the right to order liquor by the drink.

Charlie Hinkle: "Liquor by the drink is a fine thing if you happen to like liquor by the drink, but not many states would think to put that in their constitution.  But we have it in our constitution."

The Oregon Constitution is also full of spelling errors.  In fact, the word "Governor" is misspelled at least three times.

So Hinkle says he's a little amused when opponents of the tobacco tax increase try to portray the Oregon Constitution as a sacred document that must never be violated, especially with a new tax.

Charlie Hinkle: "There are more words in the existing Oregon Constitution that deal with tax than with any other subject.  So to put Measure 50 relating to a tax on cigarette sales into the constitution is not at all unusual."

Though it is the first tax on a specific product.  The money raised by Measure 50 would go towards a proposal called the Healthy Kids Program.

Supporters of the program say it would ensure that every child in the state would have access to health care.

Opponents say the program will run out of money in a few years.  But they've also been trying to capitalize on the anxiety some people have about amending the state's constitution with a specific tax.

This ad by the No on Measure 50 campaign shows a couple discussing the measure.

Ad Clip:  "Taxes on specific products locked into the Oregon Constitution?

"That's the way the politicians wrote it.  So these taxes can never be changed without another constitutional amendment.

"Oregon's never done that before. Not in 150 years.

"Well I'm not going to start messing with our constitution now.  I'm voting 'no' on Measure 50."

The message rang true with Salem resident Matt Daly.  He says he's uneasy with the idea of putting a tax in the constitution.

Matt Daly:  "That seems like an inappropriate place for a tax."

Chris Lehman: "They're saying the money would go towards funding health care for children."

Matt Daly:  "Oh, I'm all for health care for children. In fact, I'd probably support a tax for that.  But still, in the constitution?  I'd have to look into that a bit more."

Words like those are music to the ears of Measure 50 opponents.

J.L. Wilson is the spokesman for the campaign against the tax.

J.L. Wilson: "There's been an attempt to say it's no big deal in Oregon.  But the widespread feeling is people still revere that document and don't want to see it cluttered with meaningless things.  So that is obviously a salient issue to most Oregonians."

So why is the Democratically-controlled legislature trying to put a tax in the Constitution?

Well, that wasn't exactly plan A.  Lawmakers first tried to pass a cigarette tax hike outright.

When that didn't work they tried to put it on the ballot as a simple change in the law.  But Democrats didn't have enough votes to pass that either.  But through a quirk in the rules, they needed fewer votes to put the proposal on the ballot as a constitutional amendment.

Cathy Kaufmann:  "I'm happy to see it there."

Cathy Kaufmann watched it all happen.  She's the spokeswoman for the group trying to convince voters to approve the tax.  During the legislative session she was lobbying to get the Healthy Kids Program passed.  Kaufmann says using a constitutional amendment to fund the program wasn't her first choice.  But she says she can live with it.

Cathy Kaufmann:  "It means the money is protected.  It means lawmakers and tobacco lobbyists can't get to it, and that's a good thing."

Oregon voters have until November 6 to decide for themselves.


Oregon Constitution

Measure 50 websites

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