MONTPELIER — The House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday advanced a sweetened beverage tax and a hike in the state’s cigarette tax to cover the cost of proposed health care initiatives after weeks of wrangling.
Thursday’s vote came after a number of potential revenue sources were laboriously explored. Committee Chairwoman Janet Ancel, D-Calais, and Democratic House leaders considered myriad options before piecing together a plan that raises about $18 million and could also garner enough votes.
In the end, the committee found just enough votes to pass the bill out on a 6 to 5 vote.
“I would like to have a stronger vote coming out of the committee than we’re going to have, but I really appreciate the work that people have done to get to where we are,” Ancel said before the vote.
The committee-passed revenue plan includes a half-penny excise tax on sweetened beverages, including diet drinks and any beverage with artificial sweeteners. It also includes a 25-cent increase in the cigarette tax with a proportional increase in the tax on other related products like chewing tobacco. In addition, the plan eliminates the current sales tax exemption on dietary supplements.
Competing revenue plans sought to eliminate sales tax exemptions on soda, candy, bottled water and other products, but never found enough support on the committee, which features centrist Democrat Jim Condon of Colchester and independent Adam Greshin of Warren.
“Anytime you have an array of taxes and you’re looking at sales tax exemptions, which is kind of the alternative funding sources that we looked at, you have issues because of folks who live on the New Hampshire border,” Ancel said. “I think the retailers have been successful lobbyists against any sales tax on candy and soda for years. It was a whole variety of things. I think if you talk to any member of the committee they would have their own reasons for having trouble getting to yes.”
Democrats waited patiently for days for all committee members to be present. With Rep. Johanna Donovan, D-Burlington, back at the State House Thursday after several days away, Democrats finally had enough votes in place to advance the revenue package.
The bill that arrived from the House Health Care Committee was a non-starter for many members of Ways and Means. That plan sought to spend about $52 million on health care and used a 0.3 percent payroll tax and a 2-cent per ounce excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.
Through its weeks-long deliberations, Ways and Means killed off the payroll tax — first proposed by Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin in January at 0.7 percent — and lowered the beverage tax significantly. Ways and Means also extended the beverage tax to diet drinks and anything that is sweetened with either natural or artificial sweeteners. Maple syrup, the state’s hallmark product, is exempt.
For Reps. Sam Young, D-Glover, and Jim Masland, D-Thetford, the two-cent tax was just too high. But eliminating it altogether was not an option for Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, a medical doctor, who sought an increase in the cigarette tax.
The final Ways and Means revenue plan nearly hit another roadblock Thursday when Young made a motion to reduce to the increase in the cigarette tax. Young agreed to withdraw the amendment after Till threatened to drop his support for the entire measure.
Opponents of the excise tax vowed to continue fighting against. Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Retailers and Grocers Association, said the Ways and Means plan “is totally going in the wrong direction.”
“The excise tax is absolutely a nonstarter for us. This is a very regressive tax on food products that’s going to do nothing except hurt Vermonters in their pocketbook and send more retail business out of state because products in Vermont will be more expensive,” Harrison said.
And Andrew MacLean, a lobbyist for the beverage industry, said the original “health care aspects of the bill have dissipated” as lawmakers have moved beyond just sugar-sweetened beverages. It is now “strictly a revenue generator,” he said.
“I think the problem with the excise tax is it puts a stigma on a particular business and a particular product and its something that can be raised over time,” MacLean said.
The bill passed Thursday by Ways and Means discarded the House Health Care Committee’s previous policies and spending. The Health Care Committee’s revised plan that takes into account the available revenue will be finalized by the House Appropriations Committee.
That plan, outlined this week will provide about $3.3 million in state funding during the 2016 fiscal year to boost Medicaid reimbursement rates for primary care providers. That would draw down $3.7 million in federal funds.
The health care proposal would also provide $2.45 million for a Medicaid rate increase for professional services, drawing down $2.77 million. No additional state funds will be applied to hospital outpatient rate increases.
The House Health Care Committee’s plan provides just a fraction of the Medicaid rate increases that Shumlin proposed in his January budget address.