SALEM &

Voters will decide in November if the state should raise the cigarette tax to insure some of the 117,000 Oregon children who presently lack health insurance, under legislation signed Thursday.




Measure 50, which will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot, is a proposed constitutional amendment that would add 84.5 cents to each pack of cigarettes, raising the state tobacco tax to $2.02 a pack.




If approved, the tax increase would take effect Jan. 1.




"Today is about one thing: kids, and the Oregon children who live each day as outsiders to our health care system," said Gov. Ted Kulongoski in a statement after signing the bill.




The tax increase, sought doggedly this session by Kulongoski and fellow Democrats, would provide free or subsidized health care coverage to 83,000 uninsured children in families of four with annual incomes less than $51,600.




A tobacco tax hike would not only provide much-needed funding, but would discourage smoking, said Maria Ramos Underwood, a spokeswoman for La Clinica del Valle, where 52 percent of patients at its Rogue Valley clinics are uninsured.




"We know that when the price of cigarettes goes up people (either) stop or reduce their smoking," said Ramos Underwood.




Supported by state Sen. Alan Bates and Rep. Peter Buckley, both Ashland Democrats, the tax increase would funnel an estimated $181 million into state coffers, state economists say.




In addition to providing health insurance through the governor's Healthy Kids program, the tax hike would help bankroll state smoking prevention and cessation programs.




Democrats had sought to approve the tax increase legislatively &

without going to the voters &

but the proposal foundered in the House amid Republican opposition.




Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, was among the most vocal critics.




"I have hated that bill from the very beginning," Esquivel said after the legislation failed to muster the votes needed after the third and final time the proposal was put before the House.




Esquivel said while he supports the idea of providing health care to children, he said using an "unsustainable" revenue source to fund "such an important program" is not prudent.




"If this is such a priority, then we all need to pay for it, not just the smokers," he said.




covers the state Legislature for the Ashland Daily Tidings. You can reach him at csrizo@hotmail.com.