Gov. John G. Rowland said Thursday he will propose a 61-cent per pack increase in the state’s cigarette tax.

The proposal, expected to be part of the budget Rowland presents to the General Assembly Feb. 6, marks the first time the Republican governor has supported a significant tax increase since taking office seven years ago.

Rowland said he was reversing course on taxes because the state faces a projected $1 billion deficit over the next two years — an estimated $350 million shortfall in the budget year that ends June 30.

The tax hike, which would take effect April 1, is expected to bring in at least $130 million a year, including $40 million in the current year, Rowland said.

Rowland’s plan is 11 cents higher than a proposal by Democrats, who wanted to double the state’s current 50-cent per pack cigarette tax. If approved, it would set the state tax for cigarettes at $1.11 per pack as of April 1.

The tax would be higher than those imposed by two neighboring states — Massachusetts and Rhode Island — but lower than the fee in New York State. New York’s cigarette tax is now $1.11, but is scheduled to rise to $1.50 per pack — the highest in the nation — on April 1. The cigarette tax is 76 cents per pack in Massachusetts and $1 per pack in Rhode Island.

Rowland, who has made cutting taxes a hallmark of his administration, said it was not inconsistent to raise the fee on cigarettes.

“I don’t really think it’s a tax. It’s a voluntary tax,” he told reporters.

Despite his support for a proposal long embraced by Democrats, Rowland said the Democrat-controlled legislature should not begin spending the additional money on new programs to combat smoking.

“I don’t want any delusions this is going toward some new spending,” he said.

Rowland said the additional revenue should be targeted for ongoing health care costs, which he called the fastest-growing segment of the $13 billion-a-year state budget.

–Associated Press