Tobacco tax proponents gird for battle

As the budget battle reaches fever pitch in Sacramento, the fate of a tobacco tax to fund cancer research hangs in the balance.

As of now, the ballot measure shepherded by former state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata and backed by the American Heart Association, American Lung Association and American Cancer Society is scheduled for the February 2012 primary. But if Gov. Jerry Brown succeeds in calling a special election this year to ask voters whether they want to extend existing income, sales and car taxes for another five years as part of the budget solution, the tobacco tax measure will be bumped up onto that ballot.

Proponents clearly are preparing for that eventuality.

Last week they rolled out cycling champion and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong’s support, and yesterday, the Washington, D.C.-based Tobacco-Free Kids Action Fund put another $25,000 into the ballot measure’s Californians for a Cure committee, doubling its ante thus far; it had given $5,000 last month and $20,000 last July.

The biggest donor to the measure thus far remains Perata’s separate Hope 2010 Cure Cancer committee; it gave Californians for a Cure a total of $485,000 from November 2009 through June 2010. That’s actually a pretty small slice of Hope 2010’s $1,426,119.36 in total spending over the two-year cycle – $627,075.22 in 2009, $799,044.16 in 2010 – although to be fair, Hope 2010 formerly was Perata’s Leadership California committee and wasn’t re-tasked to this tobacco-tax measure until late in 2009.

Hope 2010 ended last year essentially depleted but has pulled down $40,000 in new, big-ticket donations since the start of this year: $25,000 from former Dreyer’s Ice Cream executive and former Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco board chairman T. Gary Rogers of Oakalnd; $10,000 from billionaire Gap Inc. heir and investor John J. Fisher of San Francisco; and $5,000 from retired real estate developer Jon Q. Reynolds of Concord. It has yet to pass any of that money along to Californians for a Cure.

Meanwhile, Californians for a Cure spent a total of about $1.293 million in 2009-10, the lion’s share of which – $480,000 – went to Carlsbad-based Arno Political Consultants for petition circulation; the next biggest beneficiary was Polka Consulting, run by longtime Perata associate Sandra Polka, at $69,791.37.

The tobacco industry and anti-tax groups have not yet formed a committee to oppose the measure, (see update below) but rest assured that when they do, it’ll soon be brimming with tobacco money.

The measure would raise taxes on cigarettes by $1 per pack, with the proceeds – estimated as about $575 million in the first year and then declining as more people quit the habit – placed in a trust fund. It requires that 60 cents of every dollar in that fund be spent to fund research on causes, prevention and treatment of cancer and other smoking-related illnesses; 20 cents be spent to fund smoking cessation and tobacco use prevention programs; 15 cents be spent to fund research facilities and equipment; 3 cents be spent to fund anti-tobacco and anti-smuggling enforcement; and no more than 2 cents per dollar be spent for administrative costs.

UPDATE @ 5:15 P.M.: I stand corrected – the tobacco industry has indeed begun organizing and spending to fight this measure. Philip Morris, through its parent company Altria, in early February created Taxpayers Against Out-of-Control Spending with an initial bankroll of $128,115.99.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.