Tobacco Tax Campaign Has Become a Pile-On

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click to enlarge Lotta butts in this campaign - Image via
Lotta butts in this campaign
Right now, all kinds of folks are clamoring for an increase in Missouri's tobacco tax -- at 17 cents per pack, the lowest in the nation. Yet so far, nobody's pulling in exactly the same direction.  

Yesterday, state Representative Mary Still, a Democrat from Columbia, filed a bill co-sponsored by six of her House colleagues from St. Louis to raise the tobacco tax to 89 cents.

Her proposal, she says, would bring in some $400 million -- revenue that the state desperately needs, but that requires direct approval from voters (because, under Missouri's Hancock amendment, legislators can only collect so much before having to ask first).

So Still's idea will have to be tested at the ballot box. Chances are it won't be the only one.

Right now, there are four separate petitions filed with the Secretary of State's office relating to tobacco.

One petitioner, Marc Ellinger of "Healthy Missouri," seeks to raise the tax by one dollar, but only on generic brands. It appears to have been filed on behalf of Big Tobacco in order to level the playing field (The Kansas City Star editorial board has called this petition "a deceptive ploy" and "a sham").

Petitioner Mark Reading, a consultant and retired state government official, prefers to endow counties with the authority to levy their own taxes. He's proposing a switch to "local control" via constitutional amendment or a change in state law.

More ciggies! - Image via
More ciggies!
Image via
More ciggies!
Then there's the big petition backed by the American Cancer Society. This one, filed by attorney/consultant Robert L. Hess II of the Husch Blackwell Sanders law firm, asks voters to set the per-pack tax at one dollar.

The resulting monies -- at least $283 million, according to the non-profit -- would flow toward smoking prevention and public school funding at all levels.

"We made it more broad this time," says Misty Snodgrass, spokesperson for the American Cancer Society, reminding Daily RFT that in both 2002 and 2006, Missourians rejected tobacco tax increases by a narrow margin. "We think voters will support this, and when election day comes, we'll all be clear on what we're voting for."

Representative Rory Ellinger, a Democrat from University City, has taken a different tack entirely. He's pursuing an increase by appealing to his colleagues in the General Assembly.

Ellinger tells Daily RFT that he's in the middle of drafting a bill that would increase the tobacco tax each year by only four cents, for only four years (and renewable after that).

It would generate revenue of $80 million, he says, but would not hit the Hancock Amendment's "tripwire" that sends the proposal to voters. And the new funds would be enough, for example, to cover the cuts being suggested in education, he says.

Ellinger acknowledges that his fellow reps and senators aren't in a very taxy mood.

"But they may take mine because it's the smallest of all the proposals," he says. "Why should we be known as the state with lowest cigarette tax in America? Is that really something Missourians should be proud of?"

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