SALEM &

Rep. Sal Esquivel thwarted a major victory for Democrats when he stymied a proposal to ask voters to increase the state's cigarette tax, a day after the Medford Republican supported the plan.




Sought by Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski to finance his Healthy Kids initiative, the tax increase would provide free or subsidized health care coverage to 83,000 uninsured children in families of four with annual incomes less than $51,600.




If approved, Oregon voters would be asked on the Nov. 6 ballot to raise the state's cigarette tax from 84.5 cents to $2.02 a pack, the same as in neighboring Washington.




Tuesday was the third time Democrats tried to advance a tobacco tax increase to the state Senate, and the second time this week that the health care plan failed by a single vote. Democrats picked up three Republican supporters, but lost two, including Esquivel.




In an earlier interview, Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said the bill is about saving lives and insuring children, not punishing of-age smokers.




"The tobacco tax is actually one way to raise revenue in a very positive way," Buckley said, explaining that fewer underage smokers will continue to light up as the cost of cigarettes increases.




The proposal, House Bill 2967, would funnel an estimated $181 million into state coffers, including $8.6 million for tobacco prevention and education programs.




Because the bill is a tax increase, three-fifths of the 60-member House must vote for it, meaning five Republicans must support the measure along with all 31 Democrats, to advance the bill to the state Senate.




Esquivel had argued that while providing health care to children is a noble cause, it shouldn't be the responsibility of smokers to pay for it, but then surprisingly voted for the proposal on Monday.




Voting yes on Monday along with Esquivel were Republican Reps. Vicki Berger of Salem, Brian Boquist of Dallas and John Lim of Gresham.




A day later, Esquivel and Boquist voted against the plan, and in a political reshuffle, Republicans Bob Jenson of Pendleton, Donna Nelson of McMinnville and Patti Smith of Corbett decided to support the bill.




Rep. Ben Cannon, D-Portland, who voted for the bill on Monday, was excused from Tuesday's session to be with his wife, in labor with their first child.




With Democratic hopes fading that the House will approve the bill, supporters are looking toward legislation pending in the state Senate would raise the cigarette tax and fund the Healthy Kids program by way of a constitutional amendment.




That bill, Senate Bill 3, which could come up for a vote this week, requires only a simple majority to pass, not a three-fifths vote the House plan requires.




As such, Democrats would not need any Republican votes.




covers the state Legislature for The Daily Tidings. Contact him at csrizo@hotmail.com