Prop B takes aim at Missouri's tax phobia
The Kansas City Star
The smoke shop at the Red X in Riverside is big enough to be a store within a store. When you place your order, you can’t miss the big orange sign.
“A 760 percent tax increase,” it says. “Enough is enough. Vote No on Prop B!”
Welcome to the front lines of Missouri’s latest culture clash.
Located just minutes from Kansas, the Red X of course wants to preserve Missouri’s 17-cents-a-pack cigarette tax, easily the nation’s lowest.
But that rock-bottom tax is a reflection of warped values. It is more important for politicians to not raise taxes even on a toxic product than it is to employ teachers and make sure colleges have resources to train the next generation of doctors, nurses and other health care workers.
It doesn’t hurt that cigarette makers and convenience stores have powerful lobbying machines in a state where the sky is the limit for campaign contributions.
Proposition B on Tuesday’s ballot is the effort of people and groups who are tired of seeing Missouri shortchange schools and fail important health indicators. It asks: Can Missouri get over its tax phobia and invest in its citizens and future?
The ballot initiative calls for a 73-cent increase in the tax on a pack of cigarettes. It also does away with a hefty pricing advantage for off-brand cigarette manufacturers. (That accounts for the misleading 760 percent increase that opponents are citing; for major cigarette brands, the tax increase is 429 percent.)
Of the money raised — about $283 million a year — 50 percent would go to public school districts and 30 percent would go to the state’s public colleges and universities.
With so many good reasons to approve Proposition B — it would discourage thousands of kids from becoming addicted smokers, for instance — opponents have been reduced to throwing mud at a wall to see what will stick.
They feign outrage because none of the tax money is earmarked to treat smoking-related diseases. But 20 percent will be used to discourage smoking and help people to quit. Far better to prevent disastrous diseases than to treat them once they strike.
Opponents are griping about a nine-member panel that would be created if Proposition B passes. This board, appointed by the governor, would award contracts for prevention and cessation programs.
The opposition refers to the future appointees as “unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats” and darkly hints that, whoever these people are, they can’t be trusted. They might even give money to people they know!
Well, yes. Proposition B calls for members of the commission to have expertise in tobacco control, medicine and public health. They would understand the impact of tobacco use and the science of preventing it. They well might work for places like hospitals and public health programs, which would conceivably be the ones running prevention and cessation programs.
Opponents do make one credible point. There’s no guarantee that the Missouri legislature won’t use the new tax money for a purpose of it own choosing, rather than heeding the statute created by the ballot initiative.
To that I say, “let ‘em try.” Every college trustee, every school superintendent, every PTA mom will be watching. The press will be watching. A raid on voter-designated funds would expose legislators as arrogant, power-hungry and contemptuous of the citizens.
It wouldn’t be pretty.
Like it or not, that 17-cents-a-pack cigarette tax says something about Missouri. We are a state that encourages people to pursue a deadly habit so certain businesses can thrive, and their operators can donate generously to key politicians to preserve the status quo.
Meanwhile, Missouri gives less money to its public schools than its own law requires, and it is funding colleges and universities at 1990s levels. Missouri ranks 11th among the states in the percentage of adults who smoke, and Medicaid expenses for smoking-related illnesses cost each household $565 a year.
Enough is enough, already. Vote Yes on Proposition B.
To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bshelly.