Gov. John G. Rowland signed legislation Thursday that adds 61 cents to Connecticut's cigarette tax, making it the third-highest in the nation.

Rowland proposed the tax increase to help close a two-year budget gap estimated at $1 billion.

"It's going to help us with this huge deficit we're facing," he said after Thursday's vote by the state Legislature. The tax increase is expected to generate $130 million in the next fiscal year.

The increase would raise the state tax on a pack of cigarettes from 50 cents to $1.11 starting April 3. Only New York and Washington will have higher cigarette taxes.

The House approved the bill, 75-67, after it passed by a 24-10 vote in the Senate.

Sen. Brian McDermott, a Democrat and smoker since age 13, was among opponents who said it was unfair lawmakers were financing their spending on the backs of smokers.

"I used to say, 'Do you mind if I smoke?' " McDermott said. "Now I'll say, 'Do you mind if I balance the budget?"'

At least 22 states have been looking at raising cigarette taxes, largely to generate revenue as they face budget shortfalls due to the recession, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Already this year, New York lawmakers approved raising that state's cigarette tax by 39 cents to $1.50 per pack. The increase, which goes into effect April 1, will make New York's the highest cigarette tax in the nation, followed by Washington, where voters last year approved a 60-cent increase to $1.425 per pack.

The tobacco industry, which has waged a state-by-state lobbying effort against the cigarette tax increases, has accused lawmakers of singling out a small percentage of the population for a greater tax burden.

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.