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Maine Tribes Seek Tax Exemption for Tobacco Purchases
02/22/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Lawmakers in Augusta are considering a measure that would exempt the Penobscot National and other Maine tribes from paying sales taxes on certain tobacco products, specifically those used for ritual or ceremontial purposes. As originally drafted, the bill would have applied to cigarettes as well, is not limited to loose-leaf tobacco products. Still, some legislators say the bill could become more complicated A.J. Higgins has this report.

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Penobscot Nation Tribal Rep. Wayne Mitchell's original bill would have allowed all federally-recognized tribal members in Maine to purchase cigarettes and tobacco products without paying any sales or excise taxes. Mitchell was not present when the amended version was put before the Taxation Committee.

Co-chair Anne Haskel says the bill applies only to tribal members using the tobacco for cultural, spiritual or ceremonial purposes. And Haskell, a Democratic state senator from South Portland, says cigarettes are not included.

"It is defined here as tobacco not wrapped in leaf tobacco, reconstituted tobacco sheet or other wrapper, and is suitable for sprinkling on a ceremonial fire, use in a ceremonial pipe or otherwise intended for smoking," Haskell said.

There was only one person who spoke in favor of the bill. And much to the surprise of several committee members, it was an anti-tobacco advocate. Ed Miller, a spokesman for the American Lung Association of the Northeast, says he has worked with the Penobscots on smoking cessation programs, and says it's important to recognize the tribe's spiritual use of tobacco.

"This bill is about the traditional use of tobacco for spiritual and ceremonial purposes, where the vast majority of the tobacco is not even smoked," Miller said. "This is not precedent setting. Maine law already provides sales tax exemptions, as you know, for various groups, including religious organizations. We believe this exemption is long overdue and we request your unanimous support of this proposal."

Sen. Doug Thomas, a Ripley Republican, was astonished that Miller's group would endorse any form of tobacco products, given its long-standing opposition to tobacco-related illnesses.

"Mr. Miller, am I to take from this that the Maine Lung Association is okay with smoking, and that smoking is not harmful if you approve of it?" Thomas asked.

"I think that would be an error," Miller responded. "This is about the ceremonial use of tobacco by the tribes. This is not commercial use of tobacco; this is not sales tax on tobacco for over-the-counter sales to the general public. This is very narrowly defined, senator."

"So this is smoking that you approve of?" Thomas persisted.

Although Miller says he understood that the bill did not pertain to over-the-counter sales, Andy Cashman of the New England Convenience Store Association told the panel he had seen nothing that clarified the implementation of Mitchell's bill for retailers.

Cashman questioned how retailers were supposed to know which tobaccos were of spiritual significance to the tribe and - assuming they knew that - how the customer would demonstrate that he or she was a member of a federally-recognized Indian tribe.

"It brings up a lot of issues about what sort of proof would be required and that sort of thing," Cashman said. "So it's something that we have to speak out against because of the burden it would place on us as retailers."

Independent state Rep. Joseph Brooks of Winterport also expressed skepticism. "Do you know how many people among the folks who live on the reservation are native Americans who roll their own and would be smoking this?" asked Brooks. "Isn't this just a substitute for buying a less expensive tobacco?"

Senate Committee Chair Anne Haskell says her panel will be looking for more definitive answers to these and other questions from the tribe when a work session is held on the bill.


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