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$2 million habit: WI Public employee smoking surcharge would generate millions for state

By   /   May 20, 2013  /   News  /   12 Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — Lighting up may cost state employees $50 more per month, but the state’s coffers could be about $6 million richer over the next biennium, according to a new report from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed measure to affix a premium surcharge of tobacco-using state employees, a fee contained in the governor’s 2013-15 budget proposal, is expected to bring in about $2 million in 2013-14 and $4 million in 2014-15.

Proponents of the budget item, up for discussion with the Joint Finance Committee on Tuesday, say the surcharge is only fair because smokers and other tobacco users drive up health-care costs for all state employees and Wisconsin’s taxpayers.

Opponents have varying positions, from those who see the surcharge as just another sin tax to critics such as the American Lung Association, which asserts the fees don’t work and hit lower wage earners harder.

SURCHARGE: A proposal that would add a $50 monthly surcharge to Wisconsin state employees who use tobacco would generate $6 million in revenue for the state over the next two years. Obamacare would not allow termination of insurance coverage to state employees who lie about using tobacco.

Walker administration officials, however, have estimated health-care costs for tobacco users are as much as 35 percent higher than that of nonsmokers. The governor has said the surcharge would help offset those costs.

The national smoking rate is 19.3 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Tobacco use is highly correlated with a wide range of serious illnesses and the CDC estimates that annual smoking-related deaths in the U.S. total approximately 443,000,” the fiscal bureau report states. “In addition, the CDC estimates that for every smoking related death, 20 people suffer with at least one serious illness related to smoking.”

Tobacco use among state employees is about 9.6 percent, according to a 2012 state Department of Employee Trust Funds survey, based on self-reported responses. The fiscal bureau analysis does not note revenue projections based on stick incentive – that is, how many state employees would kick the habit should the surcharge be implemented.

ETF’s Group Insurance Board, which offers group health-care coverage plans for state employees, local government employees and Wisconsin Retirement System annuitants, would be charged with developing and administering a crediting mechanism that would credit surcharge revenue back to state agencies, the fiscal bureau states. The bill doesn’t specify how credits would be issued.

A number of issues are unaddressed in the surcharge bill, including just how it will be determined which employees are subject to the surcharge. The fiscal bureau parenthetically notes an attestation process.

Also unclear is:

  • How the surcharge will be integrated into the state employee premium structure – “Whether to develop premium rates for tobacco users separate from nonusers, or maintain consistent rates and require the surcharge to be paid by affected employees as an additional employee-required contribution.
  • How annuitant premium rates are structured to allow the use of sick leave credits for surcharge payments.
  • The definition of tobacco use that conforms to federal law.
  • How the attestations relating to tobacco use are to be administered and the information integrated into ETF and state agency computer systems.

State retirees who use tobacco products also would be required to pay the surcharge.

The bill directs surcharges paid by annuitants must be used to reduce future health-care coverage premiums for retirees and to reimburse ETF for costs incurred by the agency in providing health care coverage to retirees. The secretary of the state Department of Administration would be responsible for setting surcharge amounts to be used to reimburse ETF.

“Again, the bill does not specify how the surcharge revenues would be used to reduce future health care coverage premiums for annuitants,” so the insurance board would have to “develop and administer a mechanism for doing this.”

The Group Insurance Board is scheduled to meet Tuesday.

“ETF will be asking the board to approve recommendations for policies pertaining to the administration of the tobacco use surcharge proposed in the executive budget bill,” said Mark Lamkins, ETF spokesman.

In a memo to the insurance board, ETF advises the preferred approach, “in the interest of both administrative ease and fairness to our members,” is to apply the surcharge as an add-on.

“For example, if a Tier 1 contribution for regular employees is $85 (the 2013 value), a tobacco user would be charged $135. A state patrol classified employee who pays $31 for a Tier 1 plan would pay $81,” the memo states.

Wisconsin would join a growing lineup of states implementing tobacco use surcharges. The American Lung Association, according to the fiscal bureau report, cites a dozen states that impose a tobacco-user surcharge for state employees. Surcharge amounts generally fall in the range of $25 to $80 per month, according to Employee Trust Fund officials.

Wisconsin’s surcharge proposal would allow the Group Insurance Board to terminate the health-care insurance of an employee who falsely claims to not use tobacco. But the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, prohibits such penalties.

“Rather, those attesting falsely about their tobacco use must be allowed to re-file their attestation and the employer is permitted to recoup the unpaid surcharges,” the fiscal bureau report states. It appears the termination provision will be removed from the bill. The fiscal bureau recommends the Legislature modify the bill to allow the insurance board to recoup surcharge payments of false claimants “to the extent allowable under law.”

Walker’s 2013-15 budget proposal appears to count on the surcharge. The fiscal bureau notes that “estimated reductions in state fringe benefits costs associated with the proposed tobacco-user surcharge were factored into the calculation of the compensation reserves for most state agencies and the amounts appropriated separately to the University of Wisconsin System for increased unbudgeted compensation and fringe benefit costs.”

If the finance committee should decide to delete the surcharge provision, that unrealized revenue would increase fringe benefit costs from the levels projected for the compensation reserves and the UW System, the fiscal bureau warns.

Contact M.D. Kittle at [email protected]


M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.

  • MarshallKeith

    Sure punish a minority, less people bitching. Exactly when did Walker turn into Doyle?


  • Jack Lohman

    I love it. When the tobacco cash was flowing to Walker he proposed repealing the tobacco ban in restaurants. NOW he wants to penalize state workers for smoking. And all the while “conservatives” can’t see the link.

  • Walker’s worse than Doyle, but not by much. At least people knew Walker was going to scr*w his employees. Not the nuclear option, but something. Doyle totally betrayed his constituency and despite what people think didn’t “reward” the unions. Unless by reward you mean cut their salary for two years and dragged his feet on contracts until it was too late to get them passed. The State never had any interest in settling the 09 – 11 contracts. OSER floundered with no direction from the Doyle administration. I know I was there.

  • womanwi

    I neither smoke nor drink, but I am tired of government attempting to micromanage our behavior. Keeping smoking out of public places is good, but telling people they can’t smoke without a monetary penalty seems draconian. I’d rather see the the State offer free smoking-cessation intervention for those who want to quit. It’s tough to quit. Let’s help rather than penalize

  • Jack Lohman

    I like the idea of free cessation classes, but the tobacco industry would not like the loss of smokers. And they help fund the elections.

  • Franseenit

    I totally agree – it’s time to STOP MICROMANAGING our lives! It has been a good change that people can’t smoke inside public buildings and away from entrances but gee, let them smoke as long as they pay higher premiums and pick up – don’t throw their butts all over the place. I actually go out more now to enjoy a beer or cocktail and music I think the musicians are doing better as well because people show up to listen being they don’t have to breathe the stinking smoke.

  • peter911sc

    What about caffeine? More Americans drink coffee than smoke, and too much caffeine can also cause health problems. Tax ’em all! Walker has hit on an effective way to finance government. Oh, and oxygen! It burns, did you know that? Causes fires!!! Tax everyone who breathes! Wait, I’m just getting started…

  • why not pass a surcharge on LIFE ins, seems when our borders are not safe your odds of an illegal killing you are up 10fold ,not your fault tho that’s gov fault

  • Anne D

    Hey, let’s tax fat people, people with high cholesterol (they should have to pay extra for their crummy genes), people with diabetes in their families, people who have cancer running in their families, let’s just tax them all!!!! Don’t forget the people who exercise regularly because they may live quite a bit longer (or may not), but that good health they celebrate may keep them alive in a nursing home for much longer==not to mention the joint trauma they may be causing by jogging, etc.

  • Anne D

    Clearly, the government is so much smarter than the rest of us. They’ve managed to keep their good health care, pension, etc. They should decide the behaviors of the rest of us.

  • Pizzaman7

    What do you know….govt employees have to pay extra if they want to be a smoker….just like the rest of us in the private sector. Good. Civil servants shouldn’t have these extra perks. Most people recognize that smoking will cost them extra.

  • Bristol

    What’s next .. raising the premium on females, because they cost more for delivering children. This is really discrimination. I hope the state employees file a suit.