Ten first-term Iowa lawmakers say they’re tired of waiting for leaders in the legislature to act, so the group’s introducing bills in the House and Senate that would raise the state’s cigarette tax. Representative Walt Tomenga, a Republican from Johnston, is among the 10 pressing to raise the tax by 64 cents, so the state tax on cigarettes would be a dollar a pack. “You know there’s an advantage to being a freshman legislator. You’re not encumbered by the past. We stand before you as a group of legislators who believe strongly in reducing smoking in Iowa,” Tomenga says. “We do so not as Republicans or Democrats but as citizens responding to the people of Iowa who want to see this bill pass.”
The eight Democrats and two Republicans held a news conference at the statehouse Tuesday to announce their intentions. Senator Dave Mulder, a Republican from Sioux City, says for him it’s not about getting more money for the state, it’s about keeping people from starting and convincing others to quit smoking.”Killed my dad. Killed my best friend. I’ve got any number of friends who are seriously ill today because of smoking,” Mulder says. “Throw the money out here in the Des Moines River, I don’t care. Let’s do it for kids.”
Senator Frank Wood, a Democrat from Eldridge, agrees. “As a former coach, teacher and high school administrator, I know first-hand that far too many young Iowans smoke,” Wood says. He says the latest data indicates about 20 percent of high schoolers smoke.
Last year the Iowa Senate voted to increase the state’s tax on tobacco products, but the House never took up the issue, and House Speaker Christopher Rants, a Republican from Sioux City, was verbally confronted Tuesday afternoon by folks who’re upset with that inaction. “It hasn’t come up for a vote,” Rants said, then a man tried to interrupt Rants. “If it does,” the man said, referring to the bill that would raise the cigarette tax. Rants quickly responded: “I’m not supportive of it, but it hasn’t even come out of Ways and Means Committee.”
Rants continued to speak as the man continued to press his case. “The question, Mr. Speaker is,” he said, then Rants jumped in. “Until a bill gets before me, I don’t have a decision to make. O.K.? And I’m not going to get into an argument with you folks here today.” Rants says people can accuse him of being the scapegoat, but Rants says the truth is there aren’t enough votes in the House Ways and Means tax-writing Committee for the bill to pass. “I know that it’s the popular perception for those people (who) want to, you know, look for the bogeyman in the issue to say ‘Oh, they’re stopping this,'” Rants says. “Look legislators are free to do what they want. If they want to support it they will. If they don’t want to support it, they won’t.”