I was astounded last week when I learned of one of the most unfair attempts to boost government revenue I've ever seen. Not only is it blatantly ridiculous, but further endangers the ability of already-teetering local grocery stores to remain open.
Until recently, stores only needed to pay a flat $100 fee for the right to sell cigarettes. Combined with gradually-increasing cigarette taxes, the fees have historically been a cash cow for state government. A proposal in the 2010 state budget, however, increased that fee tenfold or more.
The new fees are set at $1,000 for stores with annual gross revenues of less than $1 million, $2,500 for stores that earn between $1 million and $10 million, and $5,000 for stores earning $10 million or more. The scale is based not on how many smokes they sell, but rather their overall sales of everything from celery to Saran-Wrap.
About two weeks ago, State Supreme Court Judge Thomas Feinman issued a temporary restraining order that prevents the state from collecting more than the $100 flat fee, which was due Sept. 21. In the meantime, he's working to hash out a case brought by Long Island retailers against the fee hikes, and State Sen. Betty Little is requesting refunds for stores that already paid the increased fee.
If I had to guess, the chances of a judge saying 'no' to a fee increase is unlikely. The saddest part may be how this careless money-grab unfairly targets the mom-and-pop grocery and convenience stores, which are so crucial to Essex County communities.
If the goal of the increased fees is to discourage stores from selling the ever-popular carcinogens, why not simply ban cigarettes sales statewide? At least then these stores would no longer have to compete with the tax-free sale of cigarettes so prevalent on Indian reservations.
No, the state isn't looking to protect public health with this fee increase, but rather place a heavy burden on law-abiding, tax-paying, community-supporting stores to help pay the price for the state government's years of fiscal irresponsibility.
If money is the concern, by all means tax the heck out of cigarette sales, I say, because those costs are passed on to the consumer. If people insist on smoking, they might as well be made to foot the bill for all the medical problems they bring on themselves and others by doing so.
But don't treat cigarette retailers like common drug-pushers. The days may be numbered, but cigarettes are still legal, and the places smokers rely on for their fix are often the same places those of us striving to live healthy rely on for our food and gas.
Keep those retailer fees where they are, New York, and look for more ways to trim the fat before you cut small-town grocers out of the hearts of our communities.
Matt Bosley is the editor for the Valley News and Tri-Lakes Today newspapers. He can be reached at 873-6368 x216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.