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Missouri Convenience Stores Do U-Turn On Cigarette Tax Hike

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 After opposing efforts to hike the state’s cigarette tax for more than a decade, Missouri convenience stores are now pushing two tobacco-increase plans, either of which they said would add $800 million to state coffers within a decade of their enactment.

The Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association on Monday filed paperwork seeking state authorization to place their plans on the ballot in November 2016. The plans include roll-back language that could send the language to court if approved by voters.

“We are sick of being on the defensive when it comes to this issue,” says Ron Leone, the association’s executive director.

Missouri currently has the lowest cigarette tax in the nation at 17 cents a pack.

Both proposals include identical tax increases, except one would direct proceeds to transportation needs and the other would send the tax monies into the state’s general revenue fund.

One component of the association’s proposal is a four-year phase-in of a 135 percent increase in the cigarette tax to 40 cents a pack. The other component would increase the tax on products other than cigarettes, such as chewing tobacco and cigars, by 50 percent, from 10 percent to 15 percent.

Leone says the association would only pursue one of the two plans. But, he says, the association is unsure whether it would actually initiate the signature-gathering campaign that would be needed to place one of the two questions on the ballot.

Leone says the initial step of filing the paperwork was largely a move to add the association’s voice to what is already an active conversation about increasing the state’s cigarette tax.

“Other people are trying to monopolize the discussion,” he says.

Foremost among those other groups is the Raise Your Hand for Kids campaign spearheaded by the Alliance for Childhood Education, a bi-state organization based in Shawnee, Kansas.

Raise Your Hand for Kids is seeking to place a 50-cent-per-pack increase on the November 2016 ballot, which the campaign says would raise about $250 million annually. The proceeds would be earmarked for early childhood education and health programs around the state.

Also part of the discussion on raising the state cigarette tax is an idea, advanced by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, which would use the additional proceeds to fund college scholarships. Koster has suggested an increase of as much as 73 cents a pack.

Leone contends that Missouri voters would not approve tax increases as steep as those contemplated by the other two groups, noting the three campaigns dating back to 2002 that all failed at the polls.

Those campaigns pushed for per-pack increases of at least 55 cents, hikes that Leone has routinely labeled as outrageous and unfair.

But Erin Brower, a Raise Your Hand for Kids spokeswoman, says its polling indicates voter willingness to support a 50-cent-per-pack increase when it’s earmarked for the types of services the campaign wants to fund.

She says that voters don’t trust Jefferson City politicians enough to write them a check to spend as they see fit, as would be the case with the convenience store plan on products other than cigarettes.

Brower also says Missouri voters demonstrated their unwillingness to pay higher taxes for transportation last year when they defeated a plan to increase the state sales tax to pay for bridge and road repairs.

She also questiona the constitutionality of the convenience store association’s roll-back provision, which would automatically repeal either of their proposed tax increases in the event that a future initiative petition sought further tobacco tax hikes.

Leone counters that it is “perfectly appropriate” to build such a safeguard into its proposals.

Both camps expect to hear back in a matter of weeks from the state about whether they have approval to move forward with their signature-gathering campaigns.

General Chris Koster, which would use the additional proceeds to fund college scholarships. Koster has suggested an increase of as much as 73 cents a pack.

Leone contended that Missouri voters would not approve tax increases as steep as those contemplated by the other two groups, noting the three campaigns dating back to 2002 that all failed at the polls.

Those campaigns pushed for per-pack increases of at least 55 cents, hikes that Leone has routinely labeled as “outrageous and unfair.”

But Erin Brower, a Raise Your Hand for Kids spokeswoman, said their polling indicates voter willingness to support a 50-cent-per-pack increase when it’s earmarked for the types of services the campaign wants to fund.

She argued that voters don’t trust Jefferson City politicians enough to write them a check to spend as they see fit, as would be the case with the convenience store plan on products other than cigarettes.

Brower also said Missouri voters demonstrated their unwillingness to pay higher taxes for transportation last year when they defeated a plan to increase the state sales tax to pay for bridge and road repairs.

She also questioned the constitutionality of the convenience store association’s roll-back provision, which would automatically repeal either of their proposed tax increases in the event that a future initiative petition sought further tobacco tax hikes.

Leone countered that it is “perfectly appropriate” to build such a safeguard into its proposals.

Both camps expect to hear back in a matter of weeks from the state about whether they have approval to move forward with their signature-gathering campaigns.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly explained the tax initiative offered by the Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association.

Mike Sherry is a reporter for KCPT television in Kansas City, Mo., a partner in Heartland Health Monitor.

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