Appeals court upholds cigarette tax
Smaller companies called 55-cent levy unconstitutional.
Dismissing a lawsuit filed by small tobacco companies, an Austin-based appeals court ruled Friday that state regulators could impose a special tax on cigarette makers that weren’t part of a multibillion-dollar settlement reached with Big Tobacco in the late 1990s.
The ruling by the 3rd Court of Appeals upheld a 2013 state law that placed a 55-cent-per-pack fee on cigarettes not manufactured by the large companies that settled lawsuits filed by Texas and other states over allegations of deceptive advertising and marketing to children.
Under the settlement, the six Big Tobacco companies pay Texas about $500 million per year, and lawmakers levied the tax to recover smoking-related health care costs from other manufacturers. The fee also was intended to remove a marketing advantage that allowed smaller tobacco companies to sell cheaper products, an added enticement for underage smokers, lawmakers said at the time.
Friday’s ruling was the second significant legal victory for state officials defending the tax.
Last year, the Texas Supreme Court rejected arguments that the tax was improper because it treated the same products differently based on the manufacturer. Instead, the court ruled, the law was a reasonable attempt to hold smaller companies accountable for selling products that have the same health costs as Big Tobacco’s products.
The Supreme Court returned the case to the 3rd Court of Appeals to weigh additional objections raised by the small tobacco companies.
Writing for the 3rd Court’s three-judge panel, Justice David Puryear rejected arguments that the tax violated the U.S. Constitution’s due process and equal treatment standards and ordered the lawsuit to be dismissed.
The ruling can be appealed to the state Supreme Court. attorney general’s office, as Hutto’s assistant police chief, it said.
Hutto police Lt. Nathan Spraggins will be the acting chief until Frankland begins, the release said. City spokeswoman Jill Cloud said she didn’t know when Frankland would begin his new job.
In a phone interview Friday, Frankland said the Hutto police chief job had been “advertised” and he had interviewed for it this month.
Morrison, who was chief for two years, couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.
Jones wouldn’t comment Friday when asked about appointing a new chief the same day Morrison resigned. He also declined to answer other questions about the shakeup at the department, saying in an email, “Please refer any and all future questions to Jill Cloud.”
Cloud said the city doesn’t discuss “personnel matters.”
Morrison was paid about $105,000 a year, Cloud said, and Frankland will be paid about $130,000, “which reflects his extensive experience and qualifications.”
Frankland said he wanted to come to Hutto because it has a growing police department and he is looking forward to the challenge. He said he has “positive skills” after 24 years in the Galveston Police Department and overseeing large events, including motorcycle rallies and Mardi Gras parades.
Three Hutto City Council members — Anne Cano, Lucio Valdez and Nate Killough — declined to comment Friday about Morrison’s resignation. Two other council members didn’t respond to requests for comment or couldn’t be reached.
Former City Council Member Ronnie Quintanilla-Perez described Morrison as a “professional and a man of integrity.”
“He always worked hard to improve and move the department forward,” she said. “I am sorry that the department and the community will be losing him.”
Morrison’s is the latest in a series of recent resignations and firings in Hutto.
Two City Council members, Michael Smith and Bettina Jordan, resigned this month. Smith stepped down after questions were raised about unpaid taxes; Jordan didn’t respond to a request for comment about her resignation March 16.
Last week, the city held a news conference to announce that Jones had fired the city’s human resources director, an assistant city manager and a senior planner, saying it was because they lacked the skills for their jobs.
Their attorney said two of them were fired partly in retaliation for reporting a complaint of sexual harassment and discrimination against Jones to the city’s mayor.
The City Council and an attorney for the city said Jones had done nothing wrong.