Tobacco Tax Could Be a Preview of the Fall Vote

If Prop 29 loses, it underscores grim task for Gov. Jerry Brown

California voters don't like taxes, unless they're on the other guy. That's why initial support was strong for Prop 29, which would raise the cigarette tax by a buck per pack.

But that support has wilted under a barrage of tobacco-funded TV ads.

The last Field Poll before Election Day showed that support had slipped to 53 percent. With low turnout, it looks to be a toss-up.

If Prop 29 loses, it represents a sobering lesson for Gov. Jerry Brown's team. The governor wants voters to approve a quarter-cent hike in the sales tax, and an increase in the income tax for those earning $250,000 and up.

Part of the proposal's appeal from Team Brown's perspective is that the income-tax hike would affect a relatively small percentage of the state's taxpayers.

In other words, taxing the wealthy is a strong campaign message. But if voters are unwilling to tax smokers, you have to wonder if they'd be willing to approve a tax on the rich -- not to mention a sales-tax increase on themselves.

To be fair, no tax is a strictly easy sell.

The last time California voters approved a cigarette tax increase was 14 years ago. And low voter turnout in the primary is an important factor.

But if 29 fails, it's a strong indication of the public's attitude toward taxes in 2012.

Brown's course is to tell voters the consequences of rejecting his tax proposal: further cuts to popular programs, including education and public safety.

He's not bluffing, especially with a $16 billion shortfall. That's the choice voters will face.

The governor faces other obstacles, including a couple of other tax-hike measures on the same ballot.

But the outcome of Prop 29's tobacco tax is an important preview of the tax battle ahead.

If it fails, it doesn't mean the governor's tax goes up in smoke, but it's a sign of the firefight ahead.

Author Kevin Riggs, an Emmy-winning former TV reporter in Sacramento, is Senior Vice President at Randle Communications.

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