Initiative would raise cigarette tax to aid Idaho colleges

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BOISE – A group launched by former college friends is pitching a 2016 ballot initiative to raise Idaho’s cigarette tax by $1.50 a pack, and use the money to lower tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities.

Bill Moran, a political consultant and 2011 Georgetown University law school graduate who recently moved to Idaho from Arizona, said 114 people already have volunteered to collect signatures.

“That’s before we even did much of a blitz on the campuses,” he said.

It’s a tall order to qualify an initiative for the ballot in Idaho – it requires more than 47,000 signatures, including at least 6 percent of voters in each of 18 legislative districts. The 18-districts requirement passed in 2013; no initiatives have qualified for the ballot since.

But Moran said, “What’s unique about this is the college campuses are strategically located, in a sense, so that you could take up those 18 out of 35 districts.” He said his group, called StopTuitionHikes.com, is seeing “tons of interest.”

He points to big jumps in Idaho college tuition over the years, and high rates of student debt.

According to the state Board of Education, Idaho’s public college tuition and fees rose 80 percent from 2004 to 2013. Meanwhile, the share of the state budget going to colleges and universities has dropped from 13.5 percent in 1994 to 8.6 percent in 2015. Tuition and fees covered 7.2 percent of the cost of an Idaho public college education in 1980; it’s 47 percent today. However, Idaho ranks 13th among 15 Western states for its resident university tuition, and is at 81 percent of the average; Washington has the highest tuition in that group, at 155 percent of the average.

Gary Moncrief, emeritus professor of political science at Boise State University and an expert on initiatives, said Idaho has had few initiatives make the ballot over the years, and many that qualify don’t pass.

“My position on initiatives is it’s an exercise in grass-roots democracy, and more power to ’em if they can do it. But it’s never easy in Idaho.”

There have been multiple efforts to raise Idaho’s cigarette tax over the years; lawmakers turned to the cigarette tax in 2005 to fund the renovation of the state Capitol. But Idaho’s cigarette tax has remained at 57 cents a pack. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids reports that the average state cigarette tax is $1.60 per pack; Idaho’s ranks 43rd and is the lowest among surrounding states, with Washington at $3.025 per pack, Utah at $1.70 and Oregon at $1.31.

Moran said he plans to file the initiative with the Idaho Secretary of State’s office on Tuesday. After a review by the Attorney General, his group would then have until April 30 to gather the required valid signatures.