Fuming with impatience

Editorial Page Editor
OVER THE holidays, my wife and I went to see “Australia.” Since we don’t get out much, the $9 ticket price was a shock. My wife recovered first, and had the presence of mind to ask for the senior discount — the first time either of us had taken advantage of that. It was still high, but $6.50 apiece was less painful to a guy who wasn’t burning to watch Nicole Kidman for almost three hours anyway.
    A couple of days later, playing golf with my dad and one of my daughters, I decided to play from the senior tees, just to keep us from having to tee off from three separate places on each hole. But whatever my excuse, the fact remains that, at 55, I am entitled now to that privilege.
    My point here is that life is finite, and I’ve had numerous reminders of that lately. Consequently, I am less patient than I used to be. In terms of my role as editorial page editor, what this means is that I chafe more readily, and more loudly, at the failure and/or refusal of South Carolina’s political leaders to take even the simplest, most commonsense steps toward moving our state beyond being last where we’d like to be first, and first where we’d like to be last.
    My colleagues on the editorial board are painfully aware of this. They will urge me to go along with praising some “reasonable” political compromise that moves roughly, barely perceptibly, in the right direction, and I will refuse. I will insist that we advocate what should happen, that we articulate clearly why it should happen, and why there is no rational, defensible reason why it should not happen. I insist upon this because all too often if we don’t say it, no one (no one with a pulpit as bully as ours, anyway) will. This can come across as inflexibility. But what it really is is impatience.
    Some of these things that I get tired of advocating for in vain, year after year, are admittedly complicated, which is what makes it so easy for the forces of reaction to prevent progress. Comprehensive tax reform (see the above editorial) is one such issue. But sometimes the need for change is painfully simple and obvious. Take our lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax.
    Let’s review some basic facts:

  • The state tax on a pack of cigarettes is 7 cents, and it has been since 1977.
  • The average state tax nationally is more than a dollar.
  • Study after study has demonstrated that the higher the cost of a pack of cigarettes, the fewer teenagers will take up the habit.
  • Here in South Carolina, with our current tax, 6,300 kids under 18 take up smoking annually.
  • Each year, 5,900 adults — almost all of whom started as teens — die as a result of smoking.
  • The annual direct health care cost to South Carolina of smoking (not including the impact of secondhand smoke) is $1.09 billion.
  • This adds $574 per household to our tax burden.
  • Each dollar that South Carolina contributes to Medicaid is matched by three more federal dollars, quadrupling the effect.

    We’ve heard all the excuses for inaction. They range from the ideological/quasi-religious (the inflexible opposition to any tax increase, no matter how good an idea it may be in a specific case) to the downright moronic. (“If you raise the tax, fewer people will smoke, and your revenues will go down.” Great. Fantastic. That’s just the kind of “problem” we want to have. Duh.)
    You’ve heard all this before, right? So what set me off this time? A small thing.
    House Speaker Bobby Harrell came to see our editorial board last week to talk about his priorities for the 2009 legislative session. I appreciate that he did this; I really do. I’ll even go so far as to say that Bobby Harrell is a better-than-average lawmaker by S.C. standards, and you can see why he rose to be speaker. He is even capable of being semi-visionary, as with his steadfast defense for years of the state’s endowed chairs program.
    His list of priorities was respectable. And he predicted that this year, we will finally raise our cigarette tax — by 50 cents a pack, taking us to roughly half the national average. He wants to spend the money and the Medicaid match on making it easier for small businesses to provide health coverage.
    A 50-cent hike would be progress, I told myself. And whatever it is spent on, it would save a lot of lives in South Carolina. Take what you can get. Be reasonable.
    Two days later, I read a letter from Lisa A. LeGrand of Columbia, which said in part, “It seems downright immoral to me that the state has means of raising revenue that it simply will not utilize, such as… Raising the cigarette tax to the national average…”
    And I had one of my impatience attacks. Yes, Lisa, you’re absolutely right. Your point about raising revenue aside, there is no moral, rational, wise, defensible reason not to raise the cigarette tax immediately to the national average. There is no valid excuse for going halfway.
    The S.C. Tobacco Collaborative projects that a 93-cent increase would prevent 64,100 kids alive today from becoming smokers, help 33,800 adult smokers quit and save 29,400 adults and kids from premature death. In case you’re concerned about the politics, the group has a 2006 poll showing 71 percent of S.C. voters support a 93-cent increase.
    But you know what? That’s not going to happen. The truth is that the best we’re likely to get is what Speaker Harrell and other sensible, pragmatic, realistic, incremental S.C. leaders are willing to make happen.
    This makes me fume with impatience. It should do the same to you.

For more evidence of my growing impatience, please go to thestate.com/bradsblog/.

21 thoughts on “Fuming with impatience

  1. Randy E

    Good for you Brad. In my view, performing duties as a community conscience is a role for a community newspaper editorial board. Your almost Quixotesque outrage is the feeling I have towards the debate on school choice drowning out dialogue on meaningful reform.
    Krugman’s book, Conscience of a Liberal, zeroes in on the problems of our political system. Specifically, he identifies “movement conservatism” and the effective use of shallow rhetoric, like the all taxes are bad ideology you cite, as causes that undermine meaningful discussion, consensus, and effective government.
    Living in Connecticut, while cold as a Morris story on Holtz, is refreshing because such ideology is minimal. In SC, you are a voice from the desert.

  2. enkidu

    Yes, it happens all of the time now, but government should not be in the business of influencing the personal decisions of its citizens are directly adversely effected. As a former smoker, I agree that it is a stupid dangerous habit without merit but, to me, part of freedom is being able to do stupid dangerous things without the government putting up barriers. Unless someone else is directly hurt (e.g. theft) we should have the right to be fools.

  3. Bill

    You and other people of good conscientious always forget the one cardinal rule of SC politics. The issue of the day is unimportant, only the manner in which the issue affects the politician in important.
    One of the most powerful lobbyists in SC told me that he is never concerned with the details of any issue, only what the issue can do for the politician. When viewed through that prism, everything becomes so clear.
    So use your pulpit with that caveat in mind…and change our state. For the better.

  4. David

    Ho hum.
    Another overtly, unabashedly and unrelentingly opinionated newspaper.
    Why do you suppose it is that nearly every position you take, either by definition or of necessity, militates for higher taxes, bigger government, less personal freedom or diminished liberty for individuals?
    What ever happened to simply uncovering and reporting the news?
    Could there be any chance that your departure from simple, honest reportage of news into whatever it is that you’re doing now might be contributing to your declining circulation numbers and as revenues?
    There are obviously other factors involved (like the Internet), but it seems pretty clear that people are slowly and inexorably becoming less and less interested in buying what you sell. Meaning your opinions, no matter how loudly you preach them from your pulpit, matter less and less.
    Not an enviable position to be in.

  5. Doug Ross

    One other point – it seems from my reading of recent editorials that the opinion of The State editorial board is that the state government should be immune from the impact of the economy. When tax revenues are down, The State says we need a different way to ensure that they won’t go down.
    Could you explain the rationale behind that philosophy? Do you really believe the government should have a set spending level regardless of the economy?
    As for cigarette taxes, I don’t have a problem with raising them as long as the additional revenue is either used to cut other taxes or else spent in one year. And let’s spend it this way: collect the taxes in 2009, spend it all in 2010. Then repeat next year. No spending what you THINK you will take in. That’s the way our tax system should work.

  6. David

    Even better, stop messing around with taxes as a tool for social engineering and shaping the behaviour of citizens. It is a despicable misuse of state powers, and you should be ashamed of yourselves for advocating it.
    Have some stones why don’t you: If your motive is really to protect the health of citizens, advocate the ban of tobacco.

  7. Bird

    Shoot! David, I was hoping you were about to say, “Stop messing around with my wife” — or something juicy like that. This blog is boring. Except for Doug and Lee and Bill C. and David. And Marconi, sometimes.

  8. David

    Inveterate, or invertebrate?
    With bud and York and the rest of the flaming liberal bomb throwers on this blog , one wonders. I imagine sinister alien life forms who leave a layer of ooze dripping from their keyboards after they post here. I think they actually come from Remulac, which as conehead Dan Akroyd used to say, is in “France.”
    Just a guess.

  9. Rich

    You are right on the money. Taxes need to be increased on tobacco and our over-reliance on the sales tax needs to be compensated for by removing all the loopholes in the law (with the exception of the tax on groceries which, in the main, is regressive). Our dear governor proposes to reduce the income tax rate to 3.65%. This is one of the most stable sources of income we have. School districts and county councils should be allowed to raise property taxes to fund schools above the state contributions to education to make up for the shortfall.

  10. Lee Muller

    Tax increase are not about reducing smoking.
    Tax increase are about maximizing the revenue.
    When Canada increased cigarette taxes so much that people stopped buying cigarettes and reduced tax revenue, the Parliament immediately cut the taxes, then dialed them up and own until they found the marginal tax rate which maximized revenue.
    It is already against the law for minors to buy, possess, or consume tobacco products.
    South Carolina is already collecting over $200,000,000 a year from the Tobacco Settlement, in addition to the other tobacco taxes. All these are already reflected in the price of cigarettes, which have jumped from $2.50 a carton in 1985 to $30.00 a carton today.
    The state only spends about $2,500,000, or less than 1% of the tobacco taxes, on medical care for smokers, and on anti-smoking propaganda. The government obviously is not interested in reducing smoking. It wants more money. That’s all.
    The anti-tobacco zealots who beat the drum for higher taxes are just useful stooges for our greedy, corrupt politicians.

  11. Lee Muller

    I am not a cigarette smoker, but I used to stop at the NC Tobacco Outlet and see Marlboros there for $2.50 a carton in the early 1980s. The UAW workers I knew in Windsor, Ontario, used to buy as much as they could legally take back, when the came South in March to the beach.
    If you are a smoker, tell us what you paid in 1985 and what you pay now. The governments have long made more money off tobacco than all the tobacco companies, warehouses, auctioneers, farmers, and farm chemical companies COMBINED.

  12. Bart

    Cigarettes have been a source of illegal income in states with high taxes for a long time, not just Canada. NY has one of the highest tobacco taxes and when friends from NY would come down, they would buy the legal limit allowed per person to take back. For a very long time, illegal cigarettes were a major source of income for organized crime and may still be. Hijacking tobacco product trucks boomed for years on I-95.
    Back in the 80s when a carton could be bought for as little as $2.50 for trash cigarettes and up to $4.50 for the better brands, they were selling in NY for 4 to 5 times that amount and still cheaper on the black market than through legal outlets.
    As an ex-smoker, I understand the impetus to raise taxes on cigarettes even though tax increases don’t sit well with me.
    We do need to remember, agree or not, that SC was an agricultural state for generation after generation and tobacco was the main cash crop, not cotton. At one time, tobacco warehouses were the center of financial activity for farming communities and some cities and towns were built around tobacco. This is something that is integral to the state and cannot be dismissed or overlooked easily. Letting go of what was an important part of our state is not done overnight no matter how great the desire by reformers and health care advocates.
    Eventually SC will increase tobacco taxes and come in line with other states but as long as we have remnants from the past in control of our state legislature, it will be a tough fight. Another point to make, native South Carolinians are a stubborn bunch and cling to tradition with a tenatious grip. The uptick is that we are changing and the population is becoming more and more diverse. That is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending upon your particular point of view.

  13. Brad Warthen

    By the way, going back up to my anecdotes at the top of the column:
    — I do NOT recommend “Australia,” although my wife thought it was OK. I particularly warn Phillip and anyone else who is musically inclined, because of the particularly maddening way that the film used, overused and abused three musical themes: “Over the Rainbow,” a variation on Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze,” and a third one that really bugged me until I finally placed it as a slowed-down phrase of the “Postal Service” tune “Such Great Heights.” (The last one was introduced by a guy strumming on a ukulele.) I can’t remember being as irritated by a score as I was by that one; not lately anyway.
    — However, I CAN recommend playing from the senior tees, if you can get away with it. I was surprised by how much it helped my score, since normally my problem isn’t getting from the tee to the green; it’s the short game. I guess it just sort of took the pressure off or something, but it took almost a stroke a hole, or something just short of that, off my game. So getting older isn’t all bad.
    And no, none of that speaks to the actual POINT of my column, but I thought I’d share.

  14. Lee Muller

    Why doesn’t the newspaper do a story on how the 99% of the tobacco taxes and tobacco settlement money is not being spent on tobacco-related illnesses, nor on anti-smoking campaigns?
    Because the call for new taxes is not about health; it is about more money for pork projects.


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