Gazette opinion: I-185 adds up to good deal for Montana’s health

Billings Gazette Opinion

Big Tobacco is spending over $17 million to defeat Initiative 185, but the makers of Marlboro and Camel cigarettes aren’t trumpeting the proposal’s $2 per pack tax increase. Instead, they are claiming falsely that I-185 means higher taxes for all Montanans.

The $17 million scheme to defeat the tobacco tax initiative is being channeled through a political committee called Montanans Against Tax Hikes. Nowhere does that committee’s advertising reveal that it is funded by Big Tobacco.

The Big Tobacco committee has run TV commercials against the tobacco tax increase nearly nonstop, including spots featuring a former state lawmaker and budget director who claims that I-185 “doesn’t add up.” Dave Lewis is entitled to his opinion, but the facts don’t support his tobacco-sponsored pitch.

We Montanans have a long history of using the initiative process to improve our public health system. For example, back in 2004, Montana voters approved an initiative that raised the cigarette tax and directed that most of the new revenue be used for health care for children and seniors.

In 2008, 70 percent of Montana voters supported the Healthy Montana Kids initiative that expanded children’s Medicaid and the Montana Children’s Health Insurance Plan to cover more kids who otherwise had no insurance. However, that new law ran into opposition in the 2009 Legislature when Dave Lewis, then a state senator, along with some other GOP lawmakers, moved to reduce its funding.

Fellow Montanans, please consider the advice of another former state budget director and lawmaker: David Ewer, who led the state budget office during the Great Recession and recently retired after seven years as executive director of the Montana Board of Investments. Ewer said I-185 adds up to a good deal for Montana.

“An independent review of I-185 from the Office of Budget and Program Planning shows that revenue from raising the state tax on tobacco products will ensure health care isn’t taken away from thousands of Montana families and veterans. The OBPP is the appropriate source of the budget impact for I-185 and any initiative or new law. OBPP has found that increasing the state tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products will raise about $72 million in fiscal year 2020 and up to $74 million in fiscal year 2023. The fiscal note clearly states Medicaid expansion will continue to pay for itself through state savings and the funds designated in the initiative.”

“When you account for the ongoing savings associated with Medicaid expansion and the new tobacco tax revenue, I-185 is cost effective. I-185 would prevent nearly 100,000 Montanans from losing Medicaid coverage, which includes thousands of Montana veterans and their families who have sacrificed for us and are now eligible for Medicaid. Some of the new funds would also go directly to veterans’ services and to address unmet needs, like suicide prevention for veterans.”

In a letter to the editor published today, yet another former state budget director, Mike Billings, agrees with Ewer that the projected revenue from I-185 and the Montana general fund savings from the federal government funding of Medicaid expansion will cover the state’s costs for continuing the program.

When you see a commercial, flyer or billboard from Montanans Against Tax Hikes, please remember that’s Big Tobacco talking. The only tax hike is for tobacco and vaping products. If you don’t smoke, chew or vape, I-185 won’t raise your taxes.