Illustration by Jess Ruliffson

AS MULTNOMAH COUNTY works to close a $4.5 million budget gap—while bracing for tens of millions more in social services cuts from the state—an exasperated County Chair Jeff Cogen has a plea for lawmakers in Salem who seem loath to lift rules that keep local governments from raising their own taxes.

"We know you can't help us," he said, speaking in his office last Thursday, March 10. "Let us help ourselves."

And now, even though it will be an extreme uphill battle, his office is pushing for something they hope the legislature might get behind: legislation that would allow cities and counties the right to levy their own cigarette taxes, with a promise that money raised would pay for health programs.

That could mean millions for Multnomah County, the only one of Oregon's 36 counties to back a 2007 ballot measure on hiking Oregon's $1.18-a-pack tax. But it also would mean overcoming the might of the tobacco industry—and the thousands of dollars that it has spent lobbying lawmakers and padding campaign war chests.

Consider: Both speakers in the evenly split House of Representatives, Republican Bruce Hanna and Democrat Arnie Roblan, reaped hundreds of dollars in campaign contributions from Philip Morris last year. Same for the two House Revenue Committee chairs, Phil Barnhart and Vicki Berger. Political action committees that feed money out to dozens more candidates received thousands.

"There are some very powerful interests who would like to keep things the way they are," says Nancy Bennett, Multnomah County's lobbyist in Salem. "They have a lot of power in the building right now, and that's what we're up against."

Of the handful of bills on cigarette taxes proposed for the 2011 session, only one—another plan to raise the statewide tax—has a champion, Portland Representative Mitch Greenlick. (Greenlick has been one of the historically few lawmakers to snub Big Tobacco.) The rest of the bills, including a version of the legislation backed by Multnomah County, HB 2385, are still waiting for sponsors.

Bennett says more than a dozen states allow local cigarette taxes. She also says the battle has been fought here before—and nearly won. A similar bill cleared the House in 2009 before running out of time in the Senate, she says. And representatives from local governments pushed for the change in last year's special session.

But this year is different. Most lawmakers are consumed with how to close a $3.5 billion budget gap.

One legislative aide confirmed the difficult landscape and said getting another version of the bill through would be "extremely, extremely, extremely" unlikely.

Bennett says she hopes to at least have a hearing on the legislation, possibly starting in the Senate Revenue Committee.

"You're tying both of our hands behind our back," says Bennett. "This is an appropriate revenue raiser, and it's supported by the public."