JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Raise Your Hand For Kids (RYH4K) will present about 330,000 signatures to the secretary of state’s office Saturday morning for their initiative petition (IP) to amend the constitution to raise the cigarette tax for the purpose of funding early childhood health and education.
The effort came in the face of opposition from groups like the Missouri Association of Rural Education (MARE) and the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, which feel the petition will help private schools more than public schools and benefits big tobacco.
“It’s a huge relief and sense of accomplishment because getting 300,000 plus signatures is not the easiest thing in the world to do and we’ve been working on it since the beginning of January,” said RYH4K executive director Linda Rallo. “We’re excited that so many Missourians have signed our petition. We’re happy with the response that we’re getting out in the field from everyday Missourians who really really value early childhood education.”
The proposed constitutional amendment would phase-in a 60-cent tax on cigarettes, providing approximately $300 million a year by 2020 to create the Early Childhood Health and Education Trust Fund grant program. These grants will be used to improve quality and increase access to early childhood programs, provide preventative healthcare screenings, offer smoking cessation and treatment, and improve accountability of early childhood services.
But opponents are not as happy as Rallo and could be gearing up for a bigger fight if the signatures are certified and the measure appears on the ballot.
“’RYH4K’ circumvents part of our constitution, unnecessarily involves educators in political controversy, and helps Big Tobacco eliminate its lower-cost competition,” MARE wrote in a release.
MARE opposes the amendment because they say it would also send funds to private or religiously affiliated schools
“However, ‘RYH4K’ also allows the new tobacco tax funds to be sent to private or parochial schools,” they said. “This is accomplished by using language which states that, ‘Distributions of funds under this amendment shall not be limited or prohibited by the provisions of Article IX, section 8.’ The language is specifically designed to circumvent the Blaine Amendment, which is part of our state constitution.”
Rallo says the language is designed to get as many children as possible access to early childhood education and that means using private-public partnerships in some areas where public schools are not equipped yet for pre-K.
“We don’t want to discriminate against districts that don’t have the ability to offer early childhood on their actual campus,” she said. “In a lot of school districts, I’m finding that they need to do private-public partnerships to partner with other providers and they’re doing that already right now. If you only say say that public schools get 100 percent of the money and there’s no ability to have a private partnership, then you’re really discriminating against the poorer school districts.”
She also said that all private schools would have to apply for a grant from the fund and that ultimately, the decision on which schools get funding would lie with the Early Childhood Commission.
MARE has a couple of other objections to the IP as well, shared by the Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association (MPCA). They say the petition would bring education into unnecessary conversation about abortion, stem cell research and other hot button issues.
“RYH4K is opposed by many pro-lifers as a portion of the funds can go to ’emergency services’ for pregnant women, which may include abortions, something pro-life advocates have opposed placing in the constitution for decades,” the MPCA writes.
“Missouri Cures opposes the proposal saying it contains ‘harmful language’ that [restricts] stem cell research and carving out a constitutional exception to what was passed in the 2006 Missouri Stem Cell Research and Cures Amendment,” they continue.
But RYH4K says the language is written the way it is to ensure that all of the funds go only to early childhood health and education and is not taken by other groups looking for money.
“We’re not doing anything that hasn’t been done in the past, we’re just making it very clear that the money that goes into the early childhood health and education trust fund can only be used on programs for children and for pregnant moms in need,” Rallo said. “You just have to be very clear because people will try to come and take the money for other purposes. There’s nothing devious, we’re just making it very clear how this money will be used.”
Finally, both MARE and the MPCA say they oppose the petition because it is funded by Big Tobacco seeking to fight smaller competitors.
“It seems unusual that Big Tobacco would support a tobacco tax. It makes more sense, however, when it is understood that ‘RYH4K’ also includes language to help major tobacco brands drive up the price of their low-cost competitors,” MARE writes while the MPMCSA noted the financial contributions of large tobacco companies.
“RYH4K is a deceptive campaign funded by Big Tobacco to increase their market share in the state,” they wrote. “To date, RYH4K has received more than $2.3 million in support of their campaign from RAI Services, better known as RJR tobacco company, the makers of Pall-Mall, Camel and Newport cigarettes.”
Rallo says the group has received monetary support from hundreds of people and the other groups’ agendas are not necessarily pure either, noting they could be trying to keep cheap cigarette brands available at a low cost.
“I think it’s all spin and they want to defeat this because they are trying to protect the cheaper cigarette market and they want to sell really cheap cigarettes in Missouri,” she said. “It’s just a political attack, a smear campaign.”
The opposition means that RYH4K could be in for a long campaign, but Rallo says they’ve been gearing up for this fight for a while.
“We filed a campaign committee in March of 2015, so we’ve been campaigning ever since,” she said. “We’ve been working on this for years. We’ve been going around the state talking to lots of groups, stakeholders, presenting our ideas, collecting information. We’ve been at it everyday of the week we’ve been working on it and so we’ll just continue to go about our coalition and get our message out.”