Watching the referees

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on April 13, 2009

Earlier this month President Barack Obama signed a law raising the cigarette tax 62 cents a pack, bringing the total federal tax to $1.01. The additional income (assuming that the increased costs don't result in decreased consumption and less net income) will be used to fund the State Children's Health Insurance Program for the poor, middle class and wealthy.

The Associated Press noted this development and called it a broken promise.

One of President Barack Obama's campaign pledges on taxes went up in puffs of smoke Wednesday.

The largest increase in tobacco taxes took effect despite Obama's promise not to raise taxes of any kind on families earning under $250,000 or individuals under $200,000.

This is one tax that disproportionately affects the poor, who are more likely to smoke than the rich.

To be sure, Obama's tax promises in last year's campaign were most often made in the context of income taxes. Not always.

"I can make a firm pledge," he said in Dover, N.H., on Sept. 12. "Under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase. Not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes."

He repeatedly vowed "you will not see any of your taxes increase one single dime."

While the AP says it's a broken promise, self-styled purveyors of the Truth-O-Meter, Poltifact.com decided that this was a "compromise."

Obama's promise on the campaign trail may have been a bit of rhetorical excess based on his income tax plan, which seeks to exempt lower incomes from tax increases. Obama has taken specific steps to change that tax code, such as creating capital gains taxes that only apply to higher incomes, that are aimed at protecting the middle class from new taxes. Also, the cigarette tax does not hit all families that make less than $250,000 a year, but only those who choose to smoke. Finally, Obama clearly stated during the campaign that he supported legislation that would raise the cigarette tax, and he never mentioned any form of excise tax when making the promise.

Still, it's a tax increase. People who smoke will pay higher taxes under the measure that Obama signed. We added this promise to our database and rated it a Compromise.

Obama purposefully conveyed what Politifact.com is characterizing as a misimpression -- that Obama's "no tax hikes on any family making less than $250,000" only applied to various forms of income taxes. You may very well see your taxes go up, but excise taxes don't count.

In this case Politifact.com looks deep to find an excuse not to count this as a broken promise. It will be curious to see if they look as deeply should Obama's cap-and-trade program on carbon production make its way into law. Will they look as deeply to discover that it is effectively a broad-based energy tax that hits the poor disproportionately?

Politifact.com presents itself as an unbiased referee. It's not.

0 comments on “Watching the referees”

  1. [...] this month I noted that the Associated Press’ “Fact Check” feature was more critical of President Barack Obama than Politifact.com’s when it came to whether or not the increased cigarette tax violated Obama’s pledge not to [...]

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