Website hits RYH4K for IP, early childhood education group responds

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The Bad for Missouri (BFM) campaign is hitting a tobacco tax initiative petition (IP) which hopes to provide funding for early education.

The petition, offered and circulated by Raise Your Hand for Kids (RYH4K) around Missouri, asks:

Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to:

  • increase taxes on cigarettes each year through 2020, at which point this additional tax will total 60 cents per pack of 20;
  • create a fee paid by cigarette wholesalers of 67 cents per pack of 20 on certain cigarettes; and
  • deposit funds generated by these taxes and fees into a newly established Early Childhood Health and Education Trust Fund?

When cigarette tax increases are fully implemented, estimated additional revenue to state government is $263 million to $374 million annually, with limited estimated implementation costs. The revenue will fund only programs and services allowed by the proposal. The fiscal impact to local governmental entities is unknown.

The campaign launched a new web page addressing public school funding, which says the IP “could snuff-out early childhood education programs in our public schools.” BFM argues that the petition’s “fine print” includes a provision which would change the Missouri Constitution to allow millions in taxpayer dollars to be diverted from public education to private and religious schools.

“The Early Childhood Education Petition includes a provision to circumvent the Missouri Constitution and allow more than $280 million of taxpayer dollars to be diverted annually to private religious school programs,” reads the newly launched page.

However, RYH4K contends this is a misrepresentation of the IP’s language, which exists to provide and protect funding for early childhood education.

“Several public education organizations have advised us that many public schools do not have the capacity to accommodate their communities’ early childhood needs, and our challenge has been to craft a policy that will work for every community in the state,” Linda Rallo, RYH4K executive director, said. “Our number one goal is to equip all Missouri communities with the tools and resources necessary to address their children’s health and education needs, and the Early Childhood Health and Education Amendment will help accomplish this goal by generating upwards of $300 million in new revenue. The U.S. Constitution expressly prohibits public funds from promoting a religious purpose or advancing or endorsing any religion, and the language of our amendment does not conflict with this principle.”

The IP is competing with another IP, which also seeks to raise tobacco taxes, but for transportation funds.

Section 54(b). 2. of the IP states, “Distribution of funds under this amendment shall not be limited or prohibited by the provisions of Article IX, Section 8” of the Missouri Constitution.” BFM believes the the Early Childhood Education Petition would allow more than $280 million of tax dollars to be diverted each year to private religious school programs. Because a successful IP would create a constitutional amendment, neither elected officials nor the State Board of Education can make changes to it.

“Missouri taxpayers should be outraged!” reads the page.

BFM believes the IP would circumvent Article IX, Section 8, which states:

Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other municipal corporation, shall ever make an appropriation or pay from any public fund whatever, anything in aid of any religious creed, church or sectarian purpose, or to help to support or sustain any private or public school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other institution of learning controlled by any religious creed, church or sectarian denomination whatever; nor shall any grant or donation of personal property or real estate ever be made by the state, or any county, city, town, or other municipal corporation, for any religious creed, church, or sectarian purpose whatever.”

The message has resonated with some educators, who were surprised by the information.

“As a local school board member, I was surprised to learn Raise Your Hand for Kids would change constitutional prohibitions against using taxpayer dollars to fund private religious programs,” said Salisbury R-IV School Board Member Andrea Rice. “On it’s surface, this initiative sounds like a good idea, but upon further review, it seems to contain a hidden agenda to provide a kind of voucher program for private religious schools and that diverts money from Missouri public education.”

The Missouri School Board Association (MSBA) still supports the IP and believes the provision to be beneficial to education.

“RYH4K is an opportunity to allow our state to invest in a critical need area: quality early childhood education,” said MSBA Executive Director Melissa Randol. “Other states have figured out the benefits: greater success in K-12 education, higher graduation rates, and  reduced prison population, just to name a few. Missouri needs to step up our commitment to quality early childhood education – our future depends on it. The provision in RYH4K that allows public schools to continue to partner with other early childhood education providers in their communities does not erode the protections found in the Constitution regarding how public monies can be spent on K-12 education.”

In response to the funding attack, Rallo reassured the language as intentional and important.

“This language is meant to ensure that the funding generated by the Early Childhood Health and Education Amendment can go only to the core issues included in the amendment – early childhood education, health programs for children from birth to the age of five, and smoking prevention and cessation programs targeted at pregnant mothers and Missouri youths – by specifying that none of the new funding generated by this measure can be directed to embryonic stem cell research. It will create no conflict in the Constitution, nor will it have any impact on existing funding,” Rallo said.

BFM doesn’t stop there, however, continuing their message that RYH4K “sold out” to “big tobacco” by accepting over $2 million in the past year from RAI (Reynolds America Incorporated) Services. RYH4K received $160,910.19 in donations from RAI Services last week, bringing the total donation in support of the IP to $1,102,102.95 for 2016. In December 2015, RAI Services donated $1,000,000 to RYH4K. R.J. Reynolds produces Newport, Camel, Doral, Eclipse, Kent, Pall Mall tobacco products, among others.

“Another provision of the petition imposes a special tax on Reynolds low-cost competitors,” the page continues, claiming the provision would essentially close the tobacco loophole. “This special tax is designed to shift sales to Reynolds low-cost brand Pall-Mall so they can double their low-cost sales in the state of Missouri. It’s just despicable that Reynolds & Raise Your Hand for Kids would use our kids this way.”

However, Rallo contends the group has not sold out, but that language was intentionally placed.

“This language simply re-emphasizes that the funds raised by the Early Childhood Health and Education Amendment can only be used for the stated purpose of the amendment – to fund health and education programs for children ages birth through five and smoking prevention and cessation programs for pregnant mothers and youth. It will have no impact on existing funding streams for research.”

Rachael Herndon is the editor at The Missouri Times, but also produces This Week in Missouri Politics and publishes Missouri Times Magazine. She joined the Missouri Times in 2014, returning to political reporting after working as a campaign and legislative staffer.

Rachael studied at the University of Missouri – Columbia. She lives in Jefferson City with her husband, Brandon, and their two children.

To contact Rachael, email rachael@themissouritimes.com, or via Twitter @TheRachDunn.