Capitol Alert

California voters support increasing tobacco tax, raising minimum wage

California voters generally support a hike in taxes for tobacco products.
California voters generally support a hike in taxes for tobacco products. The Associated Press

About two-thirds of California voters support increasing the state cigarette tax by $2 a pack, and a similar percentage would back a minimum wage hike to $15 an hour, according to a Field Poll released Wednesday.

Proposals to raise the tobacco tax or increase the minimum wage have been introduced in the Legislature or as voter initiatives in recent years. On Wednesday, health and labor groups unveiled legislation for a $2-a-pack boost in the cigarette tax.

“We are committed to raising the tobacco tax,” Anthony Wright, executive director of the advocacy group Health Access California, said in an interview. “We prefer to do it legislatively, but there is an active and aggressive campaign to move it onto the ballot” if necessary.

field poll tobacco and minimum wage 

In May, a coalition of health and labor activists submitted twin initiative proposals to boost the state’s tobacco tax by $2 a pack. The next month, the allies including SEIU California State Council, the California Medical Association, California Dental Association and American Cancer Society, put aside $2 million for the pending ballot fight.

Proponents say a $2 tax hike would lower dependence on tobacco and direct an estimated $1.5 billion in its first year to health care programs. They hope to use proceeds as part of their long-running effort to increase rates paid to health providers handling patients on Medi-Cal.

California taxes cigarettes at 87 cents a pack, less than some 30 other states that tack on $1 or more in levies. The tobacco tax hasn’t increased here since 1998.

67percentage supporting $2-a-pack hike in cigarette tax

The poll found 50 percent of voters strongly back a $2-a-pack increase while 17 percent somewhat favor such an increase. Thirty percent are opposed.

Despite garnering early support in polls, previous ballot measures have faltered and lost on Election Day under heavy spending by tobacco companies. In 2012, voters narrowly beat back Proposition 29, which would have raised the tax by $1 a pack and brought in nearly $750 million for cancer research. Six years before, tobacco companies helped thwart an additional $2.60-a-pack tax labeled Proposition 86 by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent.

Taylor Hawkins, a 25-year-old Republican from Redding, said while he isn’t a smoker, he generally disagrees with the state possibly making goods and services more expensive. A part-time student who works in construction, Hawkins said “we already pay enough taxes.”

Hawkins also told the poll he opposes lifting the minimum wage. The proposal would “just make everything else go up,” he said, adding “It will not have the intended effect.”

Ricardo Roa, a 19-year-old Democrat from Bakersfield, took the opposite stance on both questions, strongly favoring a larger tobacco tax and a higher minimum wage. Roa, a college student, does not smoke, but said he believes it remains a serious health issue that must be stamped out.

“I have always known that smoking is bad, and that you shouldn’t do it,” he said, adding a more substantial tax could discourage smokers.

Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll, said that should they land on the November 2016 ballot, both the tobacco tax and the minimum wage increase begin with the kind of comfortable margins needed to sustain tough campaigns. Looking at the history of initiative campaigns, and specifically propositions that begin election cycles way out ahead, “about half of them pass and half of them don’t,” DiCamillo said.

“I am not saying it’s a slam dunk, and there will be opposition for both, presumably,” he said, “but they are starting out in a position where advocates could say, ‘Now we just have to push it across the finish line.’”

68percentage supporting $5-an-hour hike in minimum wage by 2021

The poll also found 68 percent support incrementally raising the base wage by $1 per hour every year over the next five years.

Unlike the tobacco tax, proponents of raising the minimum wage have enjoyed more success of late. A bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown two years ago lifted the state minimum to $9 an hour from $8 an hour last July. It is scheduled to rise again to $10 an hour on Jan. 1.

As some California cities and counties advance even higher wages, legislation by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would drive the state minimum to $11 an hour on Jan. 1 and $13 an hour on July 1, 2017. On Jan. 1, 2019, it would increase base pay annually based on the Consumer Price Index.

Union proponents in May submitted the Fair Wage Act of 2016 to increase the minimum wage by $1 an hour each Jan. 1 until it reaches $15 an hour.

The Field Poll, the ninth in an annual series of health-related surveys on behalf of the California Wellness Foundation, also found voters are increasingly satisfied with the state’s health care system (58 percent to 34 percent), though paying for the coverage remains a problem for many across California. Nearly 40 percent say their health costs have risen over the last year; 48 percent report static costs while 8 percent say they experienced a decline.

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago