Packs of cigarettes would cost $2 more if the Haines excise tax is approved. (Raul Lieberwirth/Flickr Creative Commons)

The tobacco excise tax imposed by the Haines Assembly will levy a $2 additional charge on packs of cigarettes. (Photo by Raul Lieberwirth/Flickr Creative Commons)

After spending hours debating the idea over multiple meetings, the Haines Assembly narrowly approved targeted taxes on marijuana and tobacco products.

The assembly was split down the middle on the marijuana excise tax. It would levy a $5 fee on each ounce of pot cultivated locally.

Opponents said the tax would burden Haines’ legal pot industry before it finds its footing.

Erika Merklin echoed that objection. She is one of a handful of aspiring Haines pot entrepreneurs. Merklin also challenged marijuana’s association with tobacco.

“If you want to make people healthier, you could tax sodas or trans-fat products,” Merklin said. “I think it’s a knee-jerk reaction to tax something that people have seen as this dangerous thing but it’s coming to light that it’s really not that.”

Much of the assembly debate came down to speculation over what kind of pot businesses will be most profitable in Haines. Tom Morphet thought the tax would be better suited at the retail level, but Heather Lende thought cultivators would see the most success.

Lende and Ron Jackson argued for the tax. They said there would be expenses for the borough to regulate the new industry.

It was a tie vote. Morphet, Sean Maidy and Stephanie Scott were opposed. Lende, Jackson and Tresham Gregg supported it. Mayor Jan Hill broke the tie with a vote in favor of the marijuana tax.

The tobacco tax proposal was slightly less divisive among the assembly. But it drew community opposition.

Mike Ward owns several local businesses, some of which sell cigarettes and other tobacco products. Ward said this tax would be demoralizing to people like him, who choose to keep their establishments open in the winter even though they lose money.

“Why should a business owner go through the grinder knowingly losing money all winter?” Ward said. “Optimism and loyalty to customers and employees is why they do that. But it does get old. I submit I’m not the only person who will take a serious look at the decision to go seasonal.”

But the assembly members told Ward the borough needs new sources of revenue. Morphet spoke by phone about the compounding effects of the state budget deficit.

“We lost the public health nurse office, we lost a state trooper, we have one more year of the forestry office,” Morphet said. “This is a new era and it’s different than anything we’ve seen in 30 years. And I think this is just the first wave of it. It’s not going to be comfortable and I don’t think it’s anything that the rest of us like to do.”

Some assembly members said the tobacco tax has the added bonus of discouraging smoking. But Stephanie Scott disagreed.

“It’s my opinion that we’ve reached a pinnacle of regulation that’s going to change people’s behavior,” Scott said. “And for that reason I am not in favor of this tax at this time. I don’t think it’s going to make a healthy difference.”

The excise tax would impose a $2 fee on cigarette packs and 45 percent of wholesale price tax on other tobacco products.

Borough finance director Jila Stuart said it might bring in anywhere between $60,000 and $180,000 per year. She based the number on what other Southeast communities earn from similar taxes.

The assembly approved the tobacco tax 4-2, with Scott and Gregg opposed.

The new excise taxes go into effect Jan. 1.