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Lance Armstrong and proponents of proposed cigarette tax see tough fight ahead

February 28, 2011 |  6:33 pm

Cyclist Lance Armstrong campaigned in Los Angeles on Monday with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for a state ballot initiative that could go before voters as early as June and would impose a $1 tax on tobacco products to fund cancer research.

“When you walk through the institutions of this state, the potential there is tremendous,” the seven-time Tour de France winner said during a news conference at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “Whatever happens and is created, or is invented, or changes in California, goes everywhere .... We will have more and more cancer survivors all over the world.”

The initiative, which would raise as much as $855 million in its first year of implementation, according to an analysis by the state’s legislative analyst, could be placed on the ballot as early as June if Gov. Jerry Brown succeeds in calling a special election to address the state’s budget gap.

But organizers of the initiative, co-chaired by Armstrong -- who recently retired from cycling -- and former state Senate leader Don Perata, acknowledged Monday that they could have a difficult road ahead. In 2006, an initiative that would have raised the cigarette tax by $2.60 was defeated after tobacco companies spent $66 million on an opposition campaign.

Earlier this month, a campaign committee sponsored by the tobacco company Philip Morris USA Inc. —  Californians Against Out of Control Taxes and Spending — was formed to oppose the proposed cancer research measure. Philip Morris has contributed $128,116 to the committee, according to a Feb. 17 filing with the California secretary of state. A spokesman for Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, said in an e-mail that it formed the committee “to explore and evaluate our options regarding this measure.”

The campaign committee sent out a news release after Armstrong’s appearance Monday, stating that the ballot measure would create “a huge new government bureaucracy for cancer research.” Speaking on behalf of the campaign committee, Teresa Casazza, president of the California Taxpayers’ Assn., said in a statement that the measure was “flawed and poorly written.”

“At a time when California is faced with a crippling budget deficit of more than $25 billion, we can’t afford to start a new program spending nearly $1 billion a year -- especially one with no accountability to the taxpayers,” Casazza said.

The revenue raised by the proposed $1 tax would be parceled out by a nine-member citizen commission and would not be accessible to California lawmakers for the state’s budget problems.

Perata acknowledged Monday that the governor “would prefer it to be on next year’s ballot,” but he noted that once a measure qualifies, it must be placed on the next state ballot. Brown has not taken a position on the measure, but a major anti-tax campaign by tobacco interests could complicate the governor’s efforts to get California voters to agree to extend existing income, sales and vehicle tax increases to help close the state’s $26-billion budget gap.

“The question is, will voters get confused by extending some taxes to benefit education and healthcare with a tax that is going to be on a cigarette … that goes to cure cancer,” Perata said. “I think the voters are smart enough to make that distinction.

“We’re stuck with the cards we’re dealt,” the former Senate leader added about the timing. “We’re going to do what we need to do, and we’re going to be successful, and I hope he [Brown] is as well, because everything riding on this state is going to happen in June,” Perata said.

If there is no special election in June, the cancer research measure would go before voters in February 2012, the next scheduled election.

-- Maeve Reston

 

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