House Bill 1204, carried by Rep. Gregg Reep, D-Warren, and supported by Beebe and the House and Senate leadership, received a unanimous do-pass recommendation from the committee. The bill will move on for consideration by the full House, where it needs a three-fourths majority to pass.
The bill would raise the tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products to fund a statewide trauma system and other health-care initiatives. House Speaker Robbie Wills, D-Conway, urged committee members to send it through.
"This represents a bold and ambitious step for health care in Arkansas," he testified. "People have been saying that we don't have the will or the backbone to put together a three-fourths majority, but we'll get it done."
The bill would raise the tax on a pack of cigarettes by 56 cents. The tax would generate roughly $85 million to fund a statewide trauma system, improvements and required updates to rural community health-care centers, and other health initiatives. Opponents of the plan agree on the need to fund a trauma system and cite the state's $700 million surplus as a means to help do that. An alternate plan by Rep. Ed Garner, R-Maumelle, would raise roughly $27 million for a trauma system by imposing fines on such offenses as murder, assault and drunk driving. Supporters of HB 1204 say there is no guarantee the fines needed to generate the money could be collected.
Robert Green, owner of a wholesale-distributing company in Warren, spoke against the bill and testified that the tobacco tax might put him out of business.
"I'm not against the trauma system or any of these health programs," he said. "This just represents an unfair burden to my business."
Reep assured committee members that he wouldn't support the bill if he believed it would harm any local business.
"I believe we've tried to make accommodations," he said. "But the health-care needs in this state are so great, this needs to be done."