Gov. John G. Rowland signed a 61-cent increase in the state cigarette tax Thursday, hours after the bill was passed by the legislature in the early morning hours.

Rowland signed the bill — the first significant tax increase in the state since Rowland took office in 1995 — about 3:30 p.m.

“It’s going to help us with this huge deficit we’re facing,” said Rowland, who proposed the tax increase to help close a two-year budget gap estimated at $1 billion. The measure is expected to generate an estimated $40 million in the current budget year and about $130 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The new law will raise the state tax on a pack of cigarettes on April 3 from 50 cents to $1.11, making Connecticut’s tax the third-highest in the nation.

The House approved the bill, 75-67, just after 2 a.m. Thursday, about three hours after the Senate approved the measure 24-10 Wednesday night.

Rowland acknowledged that many smokers — including his own mother — will not want to pay the higher tax.

“My mother’s been hard at work. She’s got her bridge club e-mailing and writing letters,” he said.

At $1.11 per pack, Connecticut’s cigarette tax will be the third-highest in the country. New York’s cigarette tax is now $1.11 per pack, but is scheduled to rise to $1.50 on April 1. Washington’s tax is $1.42. The cigarette tax is 76 cents per pack in Massachusetts and $1 per pack in Rhode Island.

–Associated Press