Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly swiftly kills proposed tobacco tax

three people at a meeting
From right, Assembly members Brent Johnson, Bill Elam and Tyson Cox participate during a meeting on June 4. (Ashlyn O’Hara/KDLL)

Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly members shot down a proposed tobacco tax during their regular meeting this week.

Money generated by the tax would have been used, in part, to pay for a new child care grant program. A separate ordinance establishing that program was withdrawn, though, after the tobacco tax failed.

The Assembly seldom fails to introduce an ordinance, which advances legislation to a public hearing and final vote.

The tobacco-related proposal would have established a new borough tax specifically for products like cigarettes, vapes and chewing tobacco. The tax would have amounted to five cents per cigarette and 35% for wholesale products.

The borough’s finance department estimated the tax could bring in $4 million during the first year it was implemented and $4.2 million the year after.

The money would have been split several ways, with the largest chunk going to maintenance projects at Kenai Peninsula Borough School District facilities. Another third would have gone to the new grant program to support child care facilities on the Kenai Peninsula.

Five Assembly members, including Kenai representative Ryan Tunseth, voted against the introduction, describing the tax as regressive, a “sin tax” or a “nanny” policy.

“I hate to use the word, sort of the ‘nanny state,’ but it seems like maybe that’s what the effort is,” he said. “And I really hate being put in a position where it appears that you either support programs for child care or not.”

A nanny state refers to government policies that aim to protect people from their own bad behavior.

Tunseth challenged claims from sponsors that the tax would discourage young people from smoking. He likened the proposal to a tax on soda and cheeseburgers as a way to reduce obesity and pay for borough landfill operations. He said that doesn’t make sense.

“There’s several issues I have with this. But number one, you know addiction doesn’t care about socio-economic status,” he said. “And so this is going to hurt poor smokers a lot more than it will rich smokers. And so in a way I feel like it’s probably a little bit regressive.”

Assembly President Brent Johnson was one of the three sponsors of the ordinances. He pointed to two local government efforts to limit smoking, like the assembly’s 2021 ban on smoking in borough buildings, and a state law championed by then-Sen. Peter Micciche that outlawed smoking in workplaces.

Micciche, now mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, said his support of a smoking ban in workplaces is different from a tobacco tax. That’s because his bill limits someone’s behavior when it negatively impacts other people.

“I don’t believe in a nanny state,” he said. “People have the right to make those choices. And this is a nanny tax for child care, essentially, — neither that we should be engaged in. This is a dangerous crossroad for the Kenai Peninsula Borough. It is a very, very dangerous crossroad. We’re a second-class borough. People want it that way.”

a man in a suit at a meeting
Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Peter Micciche speaks during a borough assembly meeting on June 4, 2024. (Ashlyn O’Hara/KDLL)

Miccicche suggested the sponsors put their proposals up for a boroughwide vote, but speculated they’d be soundly defeated. He said there are other ways the borough can address a shortage of child care services, such as by working with existing community groups and advocating for changes to state policies.

Assembly member Cindy Ecklund, the prime sponsor of the ordinances, pushed back on the idea of child care as a social service.

“This is a way that we can support the economy of our borough by opening up care centers and helping existing ones through paying utilities, the education requirements for licensure, the wages, and hopefully lowering some of the cost to the owners of those facilities so maybe they could lower the cost to the this families, which are — you may consider social services, but I think that’s a far reach,” she said.

After the Assembly failed to introduce the tobacco tax ordinance, Ecklund withdrew the child care ordinance for consideration.

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