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All eyes on tobacco as groups gear up for 2016 ballot initiatives

  

St. Louis — Leaders from across Missouri are looking at a potential increase to the tax on tobacco products to fund everything from higher education to roads and bridges as various initiative petitions continue to circulate around the state for the 2016 cycle.

The Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association filed two almost identical proposals with the Secretary of State’s office to begin circulating for signatures. The first proposal would phase in a 40 cent per-pack increase to the cigarette tax over three years, a 135 percent increase in Missouri’s 17 cents per-pack tax rate, the nation’s lowest for cigarettes.

A second proposal would increase taxes on all tobacco products by 50 percent. The first proposal send the funds directly to MoDOT while the second simply pumps the new money back into the general revenue budget.

“We’ve publicly supported reasonable, fair tax increases in the past,” Ron Leone, executive director for the group, said. “We wanted to put our money where our mouth is and so we filed this to get a more vigorous debate on the issue. When we put these initiative petitions together we were very cognizant of what the people did in the past in saying no to outrageous and unfair tax increases. We feel the people will be more supportive of a plan that is fair but also raises substantial revenue and protects consumers and small businesses.”

But that’s not the only proposal looking to increase taxes on Missouri’s tobacco to fund other projects. Last spring, Attorney General Chris Koster and State Treasurer Clint Zwiefel both publicly came out in support of a plan to raise Missouri’s tobacco tax to provide tuition-free college to qualified students, although there is currently no ballot petition for that plan.

Another group, Raise Your Hand for Kids, filed a petition for the November 2016 ballot that would raise the cigarette pack tax by 50 cents and use the proceeds to fund early childhood education and health screenings statewide for children until the age of 5. Leone said a debate on how to use new revenues from tobacco taxes should include education officials, but that most plans put fourth that he had seen were “very unreasonable” due to the size of the increase.

“I think these special interest groups do themselves a disservice and show a disrespect for the voter when they offer these unreasonable proposals,” Leone said. “I think they are going to go down a familiar path and continue to be rejected by the voters.”

The moves come as Missouri’s lawmakers have failed to come up with a plan to fund the state’s beleaguered road system and after MoDOT announced a halt of all expansion projects for at least five years, citing a lack of funding. Lawmakers last year rejected a plan for a 2 cent tax increase to the state gas tax to send MoDOT more funds, the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association’s plan represents an even larger increase. In 2012, Missouri voters rejected a 73-cent tax increase to cigarette packs that would have funded various levels of education.

In 2014, Missouri voters also easily defeated a sales tax increase aimed at pumping more than $5 billion into MoDOT over the next ten years.

Any group hoping to place their petition on the ballot must get more than 150,000 signatures from each of six of Missouri’s eight congressional districts.