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Tobacco tax to tack on 25 cents per pack

By Justin Reedy

Jeanette Stanley has been considering giving up smoking cigarettes, and she should be getting a little help from state lawmakers.

Stanley and other Georgia residents will begin paying an extra 25 cents per pack of cigarettes because of an increase to the tobacco tax approved by the state legislature last week. This is just the latest in a string of tax and price increases tobacco users have gone through in recent years, but it might be enough to drive Stanley over the edge into quitting.

"The tax hike makes you think maybe this is getting stupid financially," said Stanley, a Griffin resident who works in Clayton County. "I've known a lot of people who have quit because the taxes keep going up and they can't afford to smoke anymore. But I don't have a problem with them raising the tax on cigarettes because it costs society money from higher health care costs."

Gov. Sonny Perdue proposed earlier this year a 46-cent per pack increase on the tobacco tax to help overcome a massive revenue shortfall at the state level. But the version of the state budget for the next fiscal year approved last week by the Georgia General Assembly included a lower tax increase on cigarettes, as well as tax increases on various other tobacco products. The tax increase is awaiting the governor's signature.

That measure is just one of many the legislature approved during its 40-day session that could impact local residents. Lawmakers also voted to make the annual four-day sales tax holiday on back-to-school clothing, supplies and computer items a permanent fixture in Georgia.

Earlier in the session, legislators approved a bill that rewrote a state law targeting predatory lenders, implementing changes that should prevent credit agencies from removing the state's credit ratings on certain loans.

Local legislators also succeeded in getting several bills passed through the state House and Senate, some of which would only affect Clayton County while others will go into effect statewide.

In just his first term of office, state Rep. Victor Hill, D-Riverdale, was able to co-sponsor three bills that passed both chambers of the legislature and are now waiting for the governor's signature. Hill, who is also a detective for the Clayton County Police Department, focused on law enforcement issues with most of his legislation.

House Bill 173, which was co-sponsored by Hill and Rep. Ron Dodson, D-Lake City, would make it a felony to commit certain violent crimes while wearing a bulletproof vest. The bill would work in a similar fashion as laws against committing felonies with a firearm, which stipulate extra penalties for such transgressions.

House Bill 196, which Hill sponsored along with Rep. Mike Barnes, D-Hampton, would lower the minimum amount of marijuana required for an offender to be charged with drug trafficking. If the bill becomes law, people with more than 10 pounds of marijuana in their possession could be charged with trafficking, as opposed to the 50-pound minimum under the existing law.

House Bill 255 would require superior courts in Georgia to provide foreign language or sign language translators to victims of domestic violence or sexual assault seeking a temporary protective order against an offender.

All three bills have been approved by the House and Senate, Hill said, and will become law when the governor signs them. To be able to have three such pieces of legislation come full circle during his first term as a state representative was a great experience for Hill.

"It's a very rewarding feeling," Hill said. "I got to test my negotiation skills because a lot of my work at the state capitol was building coalitions. In order to get a bill passed, you've got to be able to work with everyone, black or white, Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal."

Barnes, a more experienced state legislator, was also able to get one of his bills passed through both the House and Senate. House Bill 397, which Barnes sponsored along with Hill, Dodson and Rep. Gail Buckner, D-Jonesboro, would provide a defense under the law for people who mistakenly bring a firearm into a public gathering or airport but immediately surrender the weapon to law enforcement personnel. That bill is also awaiting the governor's signature.

Dodson was also able to get a major bill dealing with health care industry issues passed, which he was pleased to see happen. The bill, if signed by the governor, would make county boards of health comply with state health board requirements, would remove hospital and doctor liability in the case of reactions to voluntary smallpox vaccinations, and would allow local governments to get federal funding for immunization and protection efforts in the event of a biochemical terrorist attack.

Though this legislative session was often bogged down by partisan politics n the House was controlled by Democrats, while the GOP controlled the Senate n Barnes thinks lawmakers were able to put some of those differences aside as the session neared an end last week. The fact that compromises were reached on such issues as the state flag and the budget show that legislators could work together, officials said.

"As hectic as it was, as long as it was, it was still a productive session," Barnes said. "A lot of the people's business got done."

"I think the last two days we actually got a lot done," Dodson agreed. "It was a lot of work the last few days, but I guess we can be satisfied."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.