When we launched the Obameter to track President Barack Obama's campaign promises, we identified 38 on taxes covering everything from repealing the Bush tax cuts for higher incomes to supporting tax deductions for artists .
Then, on April 1, 2009, a new cigarette tax went into effect, and we got lots of e-mail from readers saying it violated a promise Obama made on the campaign trail not to raise any taxes on people who make less than $250,000 a year. Lots of people who smoke make less than $250,000 a year, so Obama broke his promise, these readers told us.
We confirmed the quote that many readers sent us. On Sept. 12, 2008, while on the campaign trail in Dover, N.H., Obama said, "I can make a firm pledge. Under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase. Not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes."
We didn't have a promise like this in our database. We had separate promises that Obama would make the Bush tax cuts for lower incomes permanent and that he would raise capital gains taxes only on higher incomes. We decided to add this new, more broadly stated promise to our database.
On April 1, cigarette taxes went up. Certainly many people who smoke make less than $250,000. Should we rate this Promise Broken?
This launched an interesting debate here at PolitiFact. Was the final part of Obama's statement "not any of your taxes" intended as a sweeping declaration against any tax, or was he speaking only in the context of income-based taxes? We noted that his statement began with the phrase "Under my plan ..."
We looked to our coverage during the campaign for greater clarity.
Obama has long been on record supporting the cigarette tax increase. During the campaign, Obama often said he supported legislation to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program. At the time, that legislation was in Congress, and even then it included higher cigarette taxes. By saying he supported the SCHIP legislation, Obama was supporting the increased cigarette taxes to pay for it.
SCHIP was among the first pieces of legislation to come to Obama's desk, and he signed it Feb. 4, 2009. We rated it as a Promise Kept .
Another part of our deliberation was that when Obama was on the campaign trail saying that " no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase," his examples were all federal income or payroll taxes. Cigarette taxes are a federal excise tax, which is a tax on goods. (Other federal excise taxes are levied on things like alcohol, gasoline and firearms.) These are not taxes that affect people based on income level, but rather based on whether they purchase certain goods. So while some families who make less than $250,000 a year will be affected by cigarette taxes, the taxes are based on their decision to buy cigarettes, not based on their income.
Obama's promise on the campaign trail may have been a bit of rhetorical excess based on his income tax plan, which seeks to exempt lower incomes from tax increases. Obama has taken specific steps to change that tax code, such as creating capital gains taxes that only apply to higher incomes, that are aimed at protecting the middle class from new taxes. Also, the cigarette tax does not hit all families that make less than $250,000 a year, but only those who choose to smoke. Finally, Obama clearly stated during the campaign that he supported legislation that would raise the cigarette tax, and he never mentioned any form of excise tax when making the promise.
Still, it's a tax increase. People who smoke will pay higher taxes under the measure that Obama signed. We added this promise to our database and rated it a Compromise.