PORTLAND (AP) – A coalition trying to convince voters to keep a newly enacted tax on beer, wine and soda urged Mainers on Monday to find another way to show their frustration over taxes than to repeal funding that they say could leave Mainers without health coverage.

The “No on One” coalition said it’s fair to impose a tax of a “few pennies” on beverages associated with health ills in return for a stable funding source for Gov. John Baldacci’s Dirigo Health initiative, which aims to provide insurance to those who can’t otherwise afford it.

Edie Smith, campaign manager, acknowledged that many people don’t like the way lawmakers adopted the tax in the final days of the legislative session – and, critics say, without a public hearing. Nonetheless, she and others at news conference said the tax represents a fair trade-off.

“If you’re angry with Augusta about taxes, this is not a way to vent your anger because a ‘yes’ vote to repeal the new legislation will hurt more people than it helps,” she said.

The tax on beer, soda and wine at the wholesale level was adopted in April after lawmakers discarded a proposed 50-cent-per-pack cigarette tax increase.

At the last minute, lawmakers opted for the tax on beer, wine and soda, as well as on an assortment of other beverages including flavored water, iced tea and lemonade. The tax adds up to 2.6 cents for a can of beer; 7 cents for a 750 milliliter bottle of wine and just under 4 cents per 12-ounce soda, according to a legislative analysis.

The idea was that the beverage tax would replace a controversial savings offset payment assessed on insurers that has sparked regulatory battles and court fights.

The Fed Up With Taxes coalition got the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot by collecting 72,432 valid signatures – more than 17,000 signatures than needed.

Tax supporters said Monday that while the tax took some people by surprise, the idea had been around for more than a year. The governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission recommended targeting beer, wine and soda in its report released in December 2006.

“From a public health perspective, it is quite appropriate to have pennies on these beverages to support a health care coverage plan for people who aren’t able to afford health care coverage,” said Dr. Lani Graham, a former state health bureau director.

And the loss of Dirigo health care coverage leads to costly emergency room visits and higher costs for everyone, the coalition contends.

“We’re paying one way or the other,” said Dr. Lisa Letourneau of Scarborough. “This is a reasonable and fair way to do it.”

Newell Augur, chairman of the Fed Up With Taxes coalition, took exception with the idea that people would go without Dirigo Health insurance if the law is junked.

He also disagreed with tax supporters’ suggestion that all the taxed beverages are unhealthy. He said the tax would bring in $75 million by covering a variety of beverages – including juice drinks like Capri Sun, and sports drinks like Gatorade used by athletes.

“It’s a massive tax,” Augur said, “and it’s going to hit every family’s refrigerator in the state of Maine.”

Associated Press writer Clarke Canfield contributed to this report.

AP-ES-10-06-08 1604EDT

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