When she was visiting Russia several years ago, state Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) was struck by the number of ads she saw for American cigarettes.
"Every single light post in the city of Novosibirsk, Siberia, had a huge poster of a Marlboro man," she said.
Marlboro is a brand of Philip Morris, a cigarette manufacturer based in Virginia.
Howell remembered her trip to Siberia when she was working on legislation to be presented at the next General Assembly session, she said. To address education needs in Virginia in a time of tight budgets, Howell is working on a bill that would allow the state to tax Virginia cigarette manufacturers, primarily Philip Morris, a total of 4 cents per pack and earmark the money for a special trust fund for school construction statewide.
Howell said her legislation could generate $364 million a year. The manufacturers would presumably increase the price of cigarettes by 4 cents per pack to cover the cost, she added.
Because most of the 180 billion cigarettes that are manufactured in Virginia are smoked outside the state or outside the country, the impact will mostly be felt outside the state, which Howell hopes will make the bill more palatable to her General Assembly colleagues.
"I think this approach has advantages to it because it will benefit directly public education and the impact will be outside Virginia," she said. "If we could benefit from their smoking our cigarettes at the same time make it more difficult for them to damage their own health we're doing everybody a favor."
Despite the legislature's aversion to tax increases, Howell said she thought her idea had a fighting chance.
"It's the one area people are willing to talk about."
<b>VIRGINIA SCHOOLS NEED</b> the cigarette tax, said Mary Hynes, Arlington school board member, to keep up with demands the state makes on its educators.
Last month, the school board voted unanimously to support Howell’s cigarette tax proposal as part of its annual legislative agenda.
"I go back and forth on sin taxes," said Hynes. "But given the fiscal predicament, the General Assembly has to ask itself some of these questions about how to support public education."
Recent reports have shown that the state is not keeping up with funding the costs of primary education, and with the cost of funding the Standards of Learning.
"Because of the SOLs and other mandates from the state, we’ve had to ratchet up our staff and spending, and the state hasn’t kept pace," Hynes said. "We looked at this as a way to provide a funding base for public education."
In the same vein, she said, the board also looked at another cigarette tax increase, at the local level. "We support the County Board’s request to let counties have the same taxing authorities as cities" on cigarettes," said Hynes. The board voted 4-1 to support that measure.
Fairfax City imposes its own 30-cent tax on packs of cigarettes, and Alexandria levies a 15-cent tax, she said. But Arlington can only put an additional five cents on cigarettes sold in the county.
"Being that they took away a local tax with the car tax, it seems to make sense to give us a local tax," said Hynes.
<b>NOT SO FAST,</b> said state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-37), who will attend his first state Senate session next year. Virginia is not likely to raise the cigarette tax from its current rate of 2.5 cent per pack nor is it likely to start taxing the manufacturers directly, he said.
"I think it's very unlikely to pass," he said. "We need to get a handle on our budget before we start talking about making it bigger and I think you'll find that to be the consensus of the legislature as best as I can tell it from my rookie status."
Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Gov. Mark Warner (D) agreed that the legislature was not likely to raise any taxes in the near future.
"The majority party leaders have made it clear they didn't want any tax increase," he said.
But Hall said Warner was "open to the proposal" of raising cigarette taxes.
<b>SOME ADVOCATES</b> for mental health and education have rallied behind the cigarette sales tax as a way to fill the budget deficit.
"It bothers some of us that Virginia has the lowest cigarette tax in the nation," said Ray Burmester, an advocate with the Coalition for Mentally Disabled Citizens of Virginia who has been an outspoken proponent of raising the cigarette tax. "I know that there's tobacco leaves emblazoned on our capitol but times have changed."
But Burmester said he did not expect any new legislation to pass next year. "There's an election coming up next year. Anybody that steps out of the mainstream isn't going to be reelected," he said.
"I certainly would like to see it happen," agreed George Waters, the president of the Coalition for Good Schools, a local group calling for more school facilities funding. "Any manner the General Assembly would consider doing that … would be I think more than justified."