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Originally published Saturday, January 23, 2010 at 10:03 PM

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Danny Westneat

Sin taxes can't fill state coffer

Of all the people carping about new taxes coming at them this year, I'd say few are as justified as Dale Taylor. He's staring at a staggering 500 percent tax increase.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Of all the people carping about new taxes coming at them this year, I'd say few are as justified as Dale Taylor.

He's staring at a staggering 500 percent tax increase.

"We're tied to the whipping post of taxation, as we always are," Taylor shrugged.

He doesn't even seem all that upset about it. I guess because he's been here before. His business has had a tax bull's-eye painted on it for years.

Taylor is the sales manager at Rain City Cigar, a cigar and pipe place in Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood. They offer 500 types of premium cigars. Plus seasonal "tastings" held in their "25 Foot Cigar Lounge" — a tent set up the legal distance from the store's doors, to comply with Washington's anti-indoor-smoking law.

Taylor was shaking his head the other day at a couple of bills in the state Legislature that, if passed, would raise the state tax on most cigars he sells from the current 50 cents per "stick," as he calls them, to $3.02. That's three bucks in tax per cigar.

"You buy one box of cigars, you're looking at paying $75 just in state taxes," he said. "Nobody's going to pay that."

It's one of the bigger percentage boosts in a tax I've seen. Not as high as when the city of Seattle jacked a local horse farm's drainage tax by 835 percent. But in that same bewildering ballpark.

The bills, HB 2493 in the state House and SB 6443 in the state Senate, would also raise taxes on cigarettes — by a dollar a pack, a 50 percent increase — as well as on snuff, roll-your-own tobacco and other smoke products such as cigarillos.

Partly it's to raise money, about $90 million a year, state estimates show. And to crack down on smoking.

Mostly it seems like an act of desperation. Do they really think they can balance the budget on the souls of sinners? Again?

I'm OK with sin taxes, especially on cigarettes. At least in spirit, I agree with Congressman Dave Reichert of Auburn, who, after he voted a few years ago to more than double the federal cigarette tax, said this: "Since my grandfather, my father, and my uncle all died of emphysema, they could tax the hell out of cigarettes for all I care."

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But even hell has its levels. Charging three bucks a cigar is downright greedy — an affront Dante assigned to hell's level 4, a notch or two more damnable than where he put the casual sinners (the lusty, the gluttons, probably the smokers).

Seriously, the problem here is that the state's in trouble. After all the cuts and furloughs it must do, I believe it will still need to raise a broad-based tax that brings in some real money.

They could charge $10 a stick. Or $100. It wouldn't do it. Neither will the other silly proposals being talked up in Olympia right now, such as putting ads on the sides of school buses.

"We don't mind some reasonable tax increase," says Taylor, the cigar salesman. "But it's got to be fair. They're talking about taxing the crap out of cigars because they don't like them."

Let me repeat what he said, because you don't hear it often: We don't mind some reasonable tax increase.

I think that's true. I'd guess people want to see more cutting, first. But they also would rather pay a little more, across the board, than see the schools or safety net or criminal-justice system go all to hell.

So, legislators, just do that. Plus, then you could still have cheap stogies all around.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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