Group submits proposal to raise Missouri's cigarette tax

(KY3)
Published: May. 12, 2016 at 6:44 AM CDT
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A proposal to raise Missouri's tobacco tax has enough signatures to put the issue on the November ballot.

A group called Raise Your Hand for Kids has collected over 320,000 signatures on the petition, which was submitted to the Missouri Secretary of State last weekend.

The measure proposes to raise Missouri's tobacco tax and use the majority of the revenue to fund early childhood education programs.

"The problem in Missouri is that we don't adequately fund early childhood, we're one of the worst states when it comes to putting money in the budget for these priorities," said Linda Rallo, Executive Director of Raise Your Hand for Kids.

Educators nationwide agree that enrolling kids in quality early education programs make a positive impact on their futures. However, according to data provided by Raise Your Hand for Kids, only 3% of Missouri's four-year-olds are enrolled in a state-funded pre-K program. That compares to 60% of four-year-olds in Iowa, 38% in Arkansas and 27% in Illinois.

"We need to get them on a better trajectory, we need to build a stronger workforce and it all begins in those first five years," Rallo said.

Missouri's current tobacco tax is 17 cents per pack, compared to the national average of $1.61.

Opponents of the measure say education and tobacco should not be tied together. Additionally, the bill includes a 67 cent surcharge for small tobacco companies. That surcharge is what concerns many groups, including the Missouri Association of Rural Education.

"It seems unusual that Big Tobacco would support a tobacco tax," the group said in a statement. "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."

"Missourians deserve better, this is not the proposal that Missourians should embrace, and I don't think they will embrace," added Brad Ketcher, of the opposition group We Deserve Better. "And folks should go back to the drawing board on this issue."

We Deserve Better concerned over the language of the bill and how that language describes what the funds can and cannot be used for. For example, the measure stipulates that none of the money raised from the tax increase can be used to fund scientific research, like stem cell research.

It does include language, however, that makes it possible for private schools to have access to the revenue by applying for a grant.

"This is just not the right proposal for Missouri," Ketcher said. "It's funded by the big tobacco companies, it diverts public money from public education to private schools, it impairs medical research in this state, it bans research into the harmful effects of cigarette smoke and that's just the wrong approach for Missouri."

"In our language, it says that the revenue should be distributed across the state in a fair and equitable way, based on a residency population of birth to five," Rallo countered. "So the goal was to make sure that Greene County and Christian County and folks in those areas would get the same amount of revenue as St. Louis would get. And the funds would go where the children are, using census data to determine that."

If voters approve the measure, the tax would be phased in over four years. The first 15 percent increase would go into effect in January.

Raise Your Hand for Kids said the measure would raise approximately $300 million in revenue each year. Of that, 75-85% will be dedicated to early education, 10-15% will go toward hospitals and healthcare facilities for childhood healthcare and 5-10% will be for smoking cessation programs, specifically encouraging and teaching teens and mothers-to-be the harmful effects of smoking.

To learn more about the petition, go to: http://www.raiseyourhandforkids.org/