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Thrasher stomps out talk of taxes

The House speaker rejects higher cigarette taxes - even if tobacco companies go bankrupt - and a number of other Senate ideas.

By JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 15, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- House Speaker John Thrasher stubbed out talk of increasing the cigarette tax Friday, saying with finality, 'I am not for taxes."

'Even to talk about taxes," Thrasher said, 'is sending the wrong signals."

Thrasher's statements came one day after his colleagues in the Senate raised the possibility of a cigarette tax increase as a way to fill state coffers if tobacco companies go bankrupt.

As a result of a settlement with tobacco companies, the state expects to receive $17.4-billion from the industry over the next 30 years. But a huge class-action lawsuit in Miami brought on behalf of sick smokers has some concerned that the industry could go belly up. The jury will decide punitive damage awards next month.

Senators studying the issue floated the idea of raising the cigarette tax in the event that tobacco companies suddenly stopped making payments. That would ensure continued funding to programs that help the elderly, the disabled and kids.

Another idea they are considering would immediately raise the cigarette tax. The revenue would offset the transaction costs of selling off some of the state's future tobacco settlement revenue for upfront cash. The higher cost of cigarettes might also prevent some teens from smoking, senators said.

But Thrasher used his weekly news conference Friday to send a message that the House would not be willing to go along with the Senate on a cigarette tax increase or a number of other issues.

Thrasher also said no to a plan that would lift state-imposed barriers to certain kinds of generic drugs. The plan passed the Senate.

Proponents say it would save consumers millions of dollars and that the barriers are a form of protectionism for makers of brand name drugs. But Thrasher said he was concerned about patient safety.

The speaker also put his foot down on HMO reform, reiterating his opposition to Senate plans that would allow patients to sue health maintenance organizations that improperly deny medical treatment. He restated his problems with a Senate plan that indirectly pays for teacher raises with a surplus in the state's pension fund.

Thrasher also said he is still unsure about whether the state needs to place a cap on the bond amount that tobacco companies must post in order to pursue an appeal of the Miami lawsuit.

'I haven't been convinced one way or another yet about whether we ought to protect tobacco companies," Thrasher said.

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