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Cigarette Store

A sign in front of the Cigarette Store at Main Street and Airport Road in Billings Heights encourages voters to vote against I-185, which would add a $2-per-pack tax on tobacco products to fund Medicaid expansion. 

The battle over taxing tobacco to pay for Medicaid expansion is too close to call, according to a Montana Television Network News and Montana State University poll on state ballot initiatives announced Wednesday.

The Medicaid expansion measure, on the ballot as Initiative 185, was supported by 41.4 percent of poll respondents and opposed by 40.8 percent. Respondents who didn’t know how they would vote accounted for 17.3 percent of the 2,000 participants.

The mail-response poll conducted between Sept. 14 and Oct. 6 has a 2 percent margin of error. MSU staff mailed polls to 10,000 voters and received 2,000 responses.

The initiative creates a $2-a-pack tax increase on tobacco to help pay for the state’s expanded Medicaid program, which provides health care to 96,000 Montanans who work, but still live in poverty. Time is running out on current funding for the program.

The political fight over the I-185 has already become one of the most expensive in Montana history with more than $20 million in campaign activity. The lobbying arm for Marlboro cigarette manufacturer Altria has contributed $17 million to help defeat I-185.

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The Montana Hospital Association has spent $5.4 million to help I-185 pass.

A second initiative on the Montana ballot, Initiative 186, was strongly supported. The initiative requires Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality to deny approval for new hardrock mines if the water pollution from the mine continues forever, requiring perpetual treatment.

On I-186, respondents split 50.6 percent for, 28.6 percent against. There were 19.8 percent of respondents who didn’t know how they would vote.

A key funding issue for Montana’s universities also appeared headed for passage. Nearly 54 percent of respondents said they planned to renew Montana’s 6-mill levy, a property tax that helps fund the state's colleges and universities. The levy, listed on the ballot as LR-128, is up for voter renewal every 10 years.

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