Now a plan to prevent smoking by rededicating some tax revenues from tobacco products. Yesterday, a bill that would do just that passed both the Senate and Assembly. Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron is in the Agnes Varis NJTV Studio to talk about that with one of the legislation’s sponsors, Assemblyman Tim Eustace.
Aron: Thank you, Michael. Tim Eustace welcome to our studio here in Newark. Your anti-smoking bill passed unanimously in the Senate and the Assembly yesterday. What does the bill do?
Eustace: What it does, Michael, well first thank you for having me here, but what it does is dedicate one percent of the cigarette sales tax to smoking cessation programs. The most important thing about that is that it hasn’t been funded in five years and we have an opportunity to reduce the amount of smokers we have in the state. I’m impressed that it went through the Senate and the Assembly. My only hope is that the governor signs the bill.
Aron: Why did you take on smoking?
Eustace: Well, surprisingly enough 10 percent of New Jersey’s residents are smokers, over 900,000 people in New Jersey smoke. Almost 50,000 of that are high school students, so you end up solving a lot of the health problems that we have in the state. If you think about it, 12,000 people a year, 1,000 people a month, die from smoking related illnesses here in New Jersey alone.
Aron: You say 10 percent of New Jersey smokes. The national rate is 17 percent. That’s phenomenal that that few people are smoking, is it not?
Eustace: 950,000 people is a lot of smokers.
Aron: You would take one percent of the retail tax on a pack of cigarettes, is that $2.70, the tax on a pack of cigarettes?
Eustace: It is.
Aron: So you would take a couple of pennies out of that?
Eustace: Exactly. It amounts to about $7 million a year, which is still $7 million more than we’ve had in the last five years to encourage the reduction of smoking. The CDC points out that the three-pronged approach to smoking cessation works. That education, number one, of smoking cessation programs, number two is actually making them more expensive by raising the taxes and number three is the health risks that they have.
Aron: You also have another bill that passed in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, or one of the Assembly committees yesterday, that would provide tax incentives for commercial farmers to donate fruits and vegetables to food pantries. Tell us about that bill.
Eustace: I’m glad you brought that up. It’s one of a raft of gleaning bills, it’s a gleaning project. In other words we’re gleaning vegetables and fruits that would normally end up in the garbage to food pantries and food banks. Nearly 40 percent, or 45 percent, of Americans throw out, 45 percent of our groceries end up in the garbage. This is a way to get healthy produce and fruits and vegetables to food pantries, whereas most people just get dry goods and not a lot of the healthy stuff.
Aron: Are the food pantries in need these days?
Eustace: They are very much in need, and very much in need of fresh foods.
Aron: And there are tax incentives for the farmers if they provide this extra food?
Eustace: Exactly. It’s a win-win. It helps people that are food starved. We have a lot of food deserts in the state of New Jersey, mostly in our inner cities, and our food pantries don’t have enough produce. So it’s a way to help the farmers deliver this product to people that are in need, as opposed to basically throwing it away.
Aron: Let me ask you about the big struggle going on at the State House on school funding and the budget. Your speaker and the Senate president have arrived at a compromise on school funding that would put about $125 million of new dollars into the system. Sweeney is saying, the Senate president, that he won’t pass the budget until the governor signs onto this prospect. There’s even a talk of a shutdown in the air. What do you think is happening and are you involved at all?
Eustace: Well let me say this, I’m from Bergen County, I represent 12 towns in Bergen County and one in Passaic County and Bergen County pays a lot of the bills for the state of New Jersey. A lot of our tax revenues go to Trenton and not a lot of them return to Bergen County. The school funding bill that’s proposed, the compromise bill between the Senate president and Speaker Prieto, brings money back to the 13 school districts that I represent and that’s a win-win for us. That’s a way to reduce municipal taxes, it’s a way to pay for more fair school funding formula, so I’m in favor of this. As far as there being a shutdown, I don’t rise to that pay level but I hope there isn’t a shutdown.
Aron: Do you think the governor will, in one form or another, embrace this package?
Eustace: I do. I think the governor will come out a winner if he goes for a formula that helps most of the towns in New Jersey.
Aron: It doesn’t sound that he wants a shutdown, or that anybody running for election in November wants a shutdown on their shoulders.
Eustace: Right, it’s a hard lesson for people to learn that run government that shutdown is not a good way to go.
Aron: There’s also a fight in your house over who’s going to be the leader come January. Craig Coughlin is challenging Vincent Prieto. So far you’re in the Prieto camp, you haven’t signed on to Coughlin. Where do you stand?
Eustace: Our concern is being re-elected. We’re in a very contentious district, we’re in one of the three or four contested districts in the state, so our job is trying to get re-elected and we’ll have that discussion in November.
Aron: In 15 seconds, do you have a tough race this year? District 38, that’s a swing district.
Eustace: It’s a tough race Michael because the electorate is 50/50. It’s 50 percent Republican, 50 percent Democrat, so we always work very hard, knock on many doors, meet as many people as we can. It’s never been easy. I don’t expect it to be easy. We’ll just work as hard as we normally do.
Aron: Tim Eustace thanks for coming in.
Eustace: Thank you, Michael.