Nov. 20, 2003 – At the 11th hour in the Legislature's budget-making process, a special interest group — tobacco importers — was given a 95-percent break on excise taxes in an amendment tacked onto the executive branch appropriation bill Thursday night.
Senate President David Jones, sponsor of the amendment, was successful on his third attempt in getting the measure approved in the Rules Committee. The appropriation bill will be taken up by the full Senate under a closed rule meaning it cannot be amended on the floor.
The only thing essentially required of "importers and manufacturers of tobacco products" in order to qualify for the 95-percent tax credit is that they file an application with the Internal Revenue Bureau and include with it signed receipts from travelers leaving the territory with their cigarettes and cigars.
Sens. Roosevelt David and Shawn-Michael Malone co-sponsored the amendment.
The theory put forth by Jones and David was that lowering the cost of tobacco would increase sales — an idea Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg found objectionable on moral grounds. "We sell these cigarettes to people so they can come back to the island to go to our new cancer center!" he said. "We just spent all this money fighting cancer; what is this doing?"
Sen. Carlton Dowe fought the amendment repeatedly on every level throughout the tumultuous day. He tried approaching the issue from an economic standpoint, saying that "you might as well call up Lolo and tell him to close up his excise office," referring to the IRB director, Louis M..Willis.
Jones's initial attempt to get the amendment attached to the 2004 Omnibus Bill failed on a tie vote, with Sens. Douglas Canton Jr. and David joining him voting in favor and Sens. Lorraine Berry, Dowe and Ronald Russell voting against. The seventh Rules Committee member, Sen. Louis P. Hill, was absent when the vote was taken.
Later Jones tried a second time — attaching the amendment to the executive branch appropriations bill. At that point, Russell, one of the two lawyers in the 25th Legislature (Canton is the other), jumped up, saying, "Wait a minute! You can't do that." Under parliamentary procedure, he said, the amendment had to be offered for reconsideration before being attached to the second bill.
Russell wanted to call the Legislature's legal counsel to the floor, but Jones said he would withdraw the amendment because the legal counsel was too busy.
However, Jones managed in the end to get the amendment attached to the budget bill — with all seven senators present for the vote and Hill joining him, Canton and David on the affirmative side.
Berry said later she voted her "live conscience." She said: "I have always been against smoking. No one in my family smokes." She helped push through legislation earlier this year establishing the Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Institute.
Russell, too, was clear about why he opposed the amendment, saying he "would never vote for anything" that promoted the sale of tobacco.
If the bill passes the full Senate Friday, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull has the power to line-item veto the amendment.
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