In a year dominated by the budget, it’s hard to see why the Legislature would deny Democrats the chance to at least tout their reasons to support an increase in the cigarette tax.

Several minority party members in the Statehouse want to increase the cigarette tax by $1.25 to provide more funding for Medicaid and public schools.

Minority Leader John Rusche said the tobacco tax hike would raise about $50 million to soften the blow of cuts to important programs. As it stands, health groups report Idaho ranks in 42nd for its tax on tobacco products, so it’s reasonable to give backers of an increase an opportunity to make their case.

It’s a known fact that smoking has a direct impact on health care costs. Low-income Idahoans who have smoked and suffer related illnesses contribute to the drain on funding for Medicaid and indigent medical care programs. So therefore, even Idaho’s conservative Republican majority in the Statehouse can see the rationale in allowing debate over a cigarette tax increase.

Still, instead, they refuse to give the matter a hearing. The result: Democrats have shown their discontent by forcing legislative staff to read virtually every bill in full, rather than just the short title. The effect: The session could drag out longer than it would otherwise.

“We’ll do whatever we can at the appropriate time,” Rusche said. “It seems appropriate that we could ask for a hearing on something that has been of key concern throughout this entire session.”

He’s right. It is appropriate to air out the issue — even if the majority of Republicans are ready to vote it down. Lawmakers should let the matter be heard, even if this is not the right year to raise taxes or if passing it would open the door to a slippery slope of higher “sin” taxes.

On the other hand, Democrats also have to be reasonable in their protest. Is prolonging the session at upwards of $30,000 a day the right way to make a point in such a devastating budget year?

A lesson from this year’s session is that the Republican majority shouldn’t use its power to stifle the thoughtful debate of matters of importance, even if it’s only the opposing party that thinks it’s important.

An example is a bill that would have offered employment protection in many cases to people so they couldn’t be fired just because of their sexual orientation. Republican Sen. Curt McKenzie of Nampa wouldn’t give the bill a hearing because he believed it wouldn’t have enough support to pass.

That’s not the point. In 2011, it’s a matter that needs to be discussed so Idahoans can weigh in and determine what direction they think the state needs to take.

As a constitutional republic, the United States depends on a system of governments where the representatives of the people take their constituents’ ideas into the decision-making process and then debate their merits. That only works if there is debate.

There are times that committee chairmen are justified in withholding bills that are outside the realm of reason in a given year. But that power can be abused, and that’s happened in the 2011 session.

• Our view is based on the majority opinions of the Idaho Press-Tribune editorial board. Members of the board are Publisher Matt Davison, Managing Editor Vickie Holbrook, Assistant Managing Editor David Woolsey and community members Tim Vandeventer, Sandi Levi, and Brandon Scholl, all of Nampa; Opinion Editor Phil Bridges and community member John Blaisdell of Caldwell, and Alex Zamora of Wilder.

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