A threat to Prop B and Missouri voters
The Kansas City Star
If Tim Jones is representative of Republicans in the Missouri House – and the heavily GOP chamber did recently elect him to be speaker – then voters of Missouri are in for a rough ride.
I spoke with Jones on the phone yesterday while researching an editorial on Proposition B, the Nov. 6 statewide ballot initiative calling for a 72-cent-a-pack cigarette tax increase in Missouri.
The ballot proposition calls for money from the higher tax to go to the state’s public school districts and its public colleges and universities. Twenty percent would be used to fund programs to prevent tobacco use and help smokers kick the habit.
If I’d been expecting a bland “we will uphold the wishes of Missouri voters” statement from Jones, I was mistaken.
Proposition B, Jones said, “is merely a statutory initiative. It cannot bind the hands of any future legislature.”
“It is not necessarily new money,” Jones said.
But the statute outlined in Proposition B takes pains to describe the $283 million the tax increase would bring in as exactly that – “new and additional funding” for the purposes outlined in the statute.
I asked Jones if he envisioned a move in the House to appropriate the money for other purposes, in defiance of a voter-approved statute.
“I think that would be up to the folks on the budget committee,” he said.
I asked Jones if he had concerns about breaking faith with voters, and he became a bit heated: “The people also every two years choose their representatives to go to the statehouse,” he said. “The people have sent more and more Republicans to go to the statehouse to handle the people’s tax dollars.”
I wasn’t sure what he was saying there. That Republicans think it’s OK to override voter-approved initiatives? That just because they have a huge majority in the legislature Republicans have the last word on everything?
I didn’t get a chance to ask because Jones spent a lot of time talking about the 20 percent of the tax money to be used for prevention and cessation efforts.
The ballot initiative calls for this money to be overseen by a nine-member panel called “The Missouri Healthy Families Commission.” This board would be appointed by the governor and approved by the state Senate. Most of the members would have expertise in tobacco control, medicine, public health and school health. In other words, they would be people who understand the impact of tobacco use and the science and best practices of preventing it.
Jones calls this “an unelected panel chosen by the governor.” He said he didn’t think Proposition B would pass, and if it did, it would be because voters weren’t aware that “20 percent of the money could be spent by political appointees.”
That argument is a red herring. One of the reasons Missouri’s smoking rate is so high is that the state has never devoted any resources toward preventing tobacco use and helping people to quit. If the state is going to embark on a serious effort to limit tobacco use, it should enlist people who know how to do that.
I asked Jones if there’s any purpose in having ballot initiatives if the legislature can overturn them carte blanche.
“That’s a good question,” he said, and described ballot initiatives such as Proposition B as “an inherent conflict with the elected representatives of the people.”
I haven’t heard Jones complain about any of St. Louis multimillionaire Rex Sinquefield’s ballot initiatives, but maybe I missed it.
The House speaker also complained about the amount of money that groups such as the Health Foundation of Greater Kansas City and the American Cancer Society Action Network are spending to pass Proposition B. That’s kind of hilarious if you look at the amount of cash that Jones individually and the House Republican Campaign Committee have raked in over the last year.
The reason health and education advocates are spending so much on Proposition B is because they can’t get the ear of the Republican majority in the Missouri legislature. House Republicans weren’t about to give a serious hearing to the notion of increasing the state’s lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax.
It’s too soon to start worrying about Jones et al dismantling Proposition B. It has to pass, for one thing. And if it does, school communities across the state will be watching. Does the Missouri House want to awaken a state full of PTA moms by plundering an education fund? I wonder if Jones really knows what he could be dealing with.