Cigarette tax plan protects will of Missouri's voters
The Kansas City Star
Missouri voters have a host of reasons to support Proposition B next Tuesday. A 73-cent tax increase on a pack of cigarettes will discourage young people from smoking, save the state millions of dollars in Medicaid costs, and raise badly needed money for schools and universities.
But voters are properly asking: How can we be sure the additional funds, estimated at $283 million a year, will be used for the purposes designated in the initiative? Couldn’t the legislature simply reduce the amount it spends on education, and use the new tobacco tax funds to make up the difference?
Those doubts are understandable. The Missouri legislature has shown no qualms about undoing voter-approved statutes. On Monday, the new House Speaker, Tim Jones of Eureka, said he didn’t support the initiative and wouldn’t guarantee the House would protect voters’ wishes if it passed.
Lawmakers might need the revenue to fill gaps in other areas, Jones said, adding that the wishes of elected representatives should always trump voter initiatives.
Jones’ arrogant remarks argue for a strong show of support for Proposition B.
A coalition of health, education and business groups went through the hard work of getting the initiative on the ballot precisely because the legislature hasn’t acted to increase the tobacco tax, which at 17 cents a pack is by far the nation’s lowest.
Fortunately, altering the voter-approved statute would be more difficult than Jones lets on. The initiative contains significant safeguards for the new tax revenue.
It specifies that money from the higher tax “shall constitute new and additional funding” for the purposes outlined in the statute “and shall not be used to replace existing funding…”
The new tax monies would be placed in a trust fund, and by statute could not be redirected to the general fund.
The state auditor would annually check to see that the statute was being followed.
The most effective check on power-hungry lawmakers is Missouri citizens. A powerful constituency of educators, parents, university students and health advocates will have a stake in maintaining the integrity of Proposition B if it passes.
The initiative calls for half of the new tax money to be distributed to public school districts on the basis of their average daily attendance. Thirty percent would flow to colleges and universities, with a quarter of that amount designated for educating health care providers. Twenty percent would fund programs to discourage smoking.
Those are worthy destinations. Missouri spends nearly $400 million less on education than its own statute requires.
As Jones has confirmed, no voter-approved statute is safe as long as the Missouri legislature is in session. But Proposition B was drafted with that caution in mind. The best protection would be a healthy show of support at the polls.