Governor Brad Henry vows fight to the bitter end for tax

Wednesday, March 3rd 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Gov. Brad Henry vowed Tuesday to ``fight to the bitter end'' for a measure calling for a vote on raising the tobacco tax to expand health care coverage and build a cancer center.

At a news conference, Henry sought to step up the pressure on House members to approve a referendum on raising the cigarette tax by a net of 52 cents per pack.

``For many term-limited legislators, this is their last chance to do something meaningful to improve the lives of Oklahomans,'' the Democratic governor said. ``I think it would be a shame if one of their last official acts was to deny voters an opportunity to improve their health care system.''

Henry said the entire health community is behind the measure, which proponents say will raise an estimated $130 million.

He wants to use the money to build the cancer research center, improve the state's trauma system and leverage federal funds to provide between $400 million and $500 million to extend health insurance to 200,000 Oklahomans who do not now qualify for Medicaid.

House leaders say they do not have the votes to pass the bill. Henry said he would work hard in the days to come to rally support.

``People said we couldn't pass the gaming regulation bill, but we did,'' he said. ``It's not going to be easy, but if we work together and resist election-year posturing, we can be successful again with the health care initiative.''

Henry said Republican Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin has expressed support for a statewide vote on the issue, but GOP leaders in the House are opposing it.

He said he is not asking lawmakers to vote for a tax increase, but to ``let the people decide whether or not they want to assess a user fee to boost funding for their health care.''

``This is the most important decision we will face all session,'' Henry said.

Some business interests have opposed the bill, saying it gives Indian tribal smokeshops too much of an advantage in pricing.

Henry argues the bill narrows the gap of the competitive disadvantage that non-tribal retailers face in tobacco sales.

He said a lot of misinformation is being spread in an effort to defeat the bill.

Scott Meacham, the state finance director who negotiated tobacco compacts with Indian tribes, identified QuikTrip stores as the source of some misinformation on the effects of the tobacco increase.

``It's QuikTrip, and QuikTrip is fronting for large tobacco,'' Meacham said.

Mike Thornbrugh, a spokesman for the convenience store chain in Tulsa, said his company was ``deeply disappointed that the chief financial officer of the state of Oklahoma would make comments like that.''

``We respectfully decline to comment any further on what their comments are about us,'' Thornbrugh said.

He added, however, that QuikTrip disagrees with the analysis of the governor's office on the effect of the bill on non-tribal retailers. ``We would be happy to sit down and discuss it,'' he said.

Sponsors have until March 11 to pass the proposal in the House or it will fall victim to a legislative deadline.