The clearest message researchers gained in a year of polling and listening across the state is that most Missourians want to support early childhood education.
Less clear, but still reassuring to the Raise Your Hand for Kids campaign, is that they think enough people would be inclined to vote for a 50-cent increase in Missouri’s tobacco tax to help make it happen.
But campaign organizer Erin Brower knows the fight to raise Missouri’s lowest-in-the-nation tobacco tax gets complicated very quickly after that.
First, other interests are likely to take a stab at the tobacco tax, which has withstood three attempts to raise it since 2002.
Missouri Treasurer Clint Zweifel, for one, has proposed seeking a tobacco tax increase to fund his proposed Missouri Promise scholarship program to pay in-state tuition for high-performing students.
Second, the Raise Your Hand for Kids organization’s effort to collaborate with the tobacco and convenience-store industries in easing their opposition to the campaign still has a lot of ground to cover.
A 50-cent increase is “outrageous and unfair,” said Ron Leone, the executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association.
And then, many of those people who do like the idea of a higher tobacco tax as a deterrent to young smokers and also the idea giving the revenue to early learning don’t trust that the money will be used as promised.
Supporters knew this wouldn’t be easy, Brower said.
“Going after this, naysayers said this would be too much work, but we’re changing people’s minds,” said Brower, the executive director of Raise Your Hand for Kids, which is coordinating the campaign with the St. Louis-based political research firm Missouri Wonk.
The campaign on Monday issued a report detailing what it had learned in its polling and in more than 100 meetings statewide.
A 50-cent increase would raise Missouri’s tobacco tax from 17 cents a pack to 67 cents. Raise Your Hand for Kids estimates it would generate $250 million a year.
A 67-cent tax rate still would be lower than the rates in Missouri’s major border retail competitors — Kansas at 79 cents a pack, and Illinois at $1.98 a pack. But Nebraska at 64 cents, Tennessee at 62 cents and Kentucky at 60 cents would be lower.
Neighbors Iowa, Oklahoma and Arkansas all have rates of more than $1 a pack. The national average is $1.54.
Earlier this year, when the United Health Foundation released its annual ranking of healthy states, among the reasons cited for Missouri’s slide to 36th in the nation was its smoker-friendly tobacco tax.
Gaining the trust of voters, however, will be a chore. It was the most-often cited concern in the campaign’s polling and community sessions, the report said.
The campaign’s plan, which is still being shaped, probably will draft a statute for voter approval that calls for the extra tax revenue to be distributed in block grants county by county based on the number of children, newborn to age 5, in each county.
Each county would establish independent councils to oversee administration of the funding, including setting up local preferences for gauging the quality of programs and how to distribute the grants.
Brower said that the campaign and other child advocates would have to be vigilant to ensure the Missouri General Assembly appropriated the grants each year and that other revenue was not diverted away from early childhood health and education.
“We would have to make sure and protect it year after year,” she said.
Leone said that the campaign would not be able to guarantee the actions of the legislature. He also said the increase would take away too much of Missouri’s price advantage, which he said draws in customers from across state lines.
Missouri would lose many of those customers, and the effort for early childhood funding would be chasing “a decreasing revenue source.”
“If it truly is for the public good, let’s have the courage to fund it from an actual revenue stream,” Leone said.
Brower said that while Missouri might lose some out-of-state customers, it would gain 3,000 or more jobs, public and private, in early childhood education.
“And then we’d also be helping out kids,” she said.
The conversations still have a lot to cover. Brower and Leone said that the campaign and the retailers would continue to look for common ground.