Time and again, Missouri voters chose to keep the state’s cigarette tax the lowest in the land.
Yet no fewer than three competing groups spent this summer plotting how to again ask Missourians to boost the cost of a pack of smokes.
Naturally, none of the groups thinks much of what the others are pushing. Instead, they’re employing gamesmanship to rally as many backers as possible behind their measures — and to discourage support of the competition.
Some analysts figure only one proposal will ultimately make it to the November 2016 ballot — the one most likely to garner support from anti-smoking groups that have tried, and failed, in past years to crank up the tax.
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The choices offered to voters could turn on how those monied forces line up in the next few weeks.
One convenience store group is floating a plan to add less than a quarter to the cost of a pack. Saying it’s tired of fighting off big tobacco tax boosts, the organization proposes a small one.
Advocates for a suite of early childhood programs want to add 50 cents to the cost of a cigarette pack. They’re toying with multiple proposals — dangling bait that might exploit divides within the tobacco industry or that could recruit other influential allies.
A third group would slap a full dollar on the price of a pack, promising the money for college scholarships and employing the considerable political clout of the state’s higher education establishment.
Ballot efforts to raise the 17 cents-per-pack tax fell to defeat in 2002, 2006 and 2012. But the last campaign lost by less than a percentage point.
“The politics are trending toward increasing it,” said Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Missouri. “The question is by how much.”
And, just as critically, where will the money go.
Analysts say time is already running short. Ballot language must be approved by the Missouri secretary of state, typically a two-month process. Then the proposals must withstand likely legal challenges from opponents. Next comes the labor-intensive and expensive — most estimates range north of $750,000 — work of collecting nearly 100,000 signatures before a May 8 deadline.
To persuade donors to contribute to a signature-gathering effort, the various camps must also persuade them they’ll ultimately round up enough cash to win next fall. Such a campaign, experts say, would need at least $5 million.
More immediately, the groups find themselves trying to elbow aside the efforts of the others.
The Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association proposes bumping the tax by 23 cents. It would direct the money either to road construction or general state revenues. The plan draws skepticism in the state’s political circles.
“It’s a bargaining chip,” said Republican political consultant James Harris.
It’s largely perceived as a bluff by the cigarette sellers to see if the other groups might shoot for a lower increase. In return, backers of the competing proposals might form an alliance with the convenience stores that spent so heavily to beat past tobacco tax-boost plans. Its ubiquitous outlets also work as pulpits to argue that steeper prices would hurt small businesses.
Ronald Leone, the executive director of the group, said he’s tried to trigger an “adult conversation” about an alternative to “unfair and outrageous” increases in the state’s cigarette tax.
If the other groups ratchet down their proposals, he said, the convenience stores might join forces or at least agree to sit out the campaign. Failing that, the organization’s 23-cent tax boost could go on the ballot and tempt voters to choose the lowest increase.
“Our ultimate goal is to put this issue (a cigarette tax increase) to bed for the foreseeable future,” Leone said.
Raise Your Hand for Kids proposes a 50-cent tax boost to raise money for health and education programs for the first five years of life — including diaper vouchers for pregnant women who complete smoking cessation classes.
So far, that group has submitted six differing petitions to the secretary of state. Partly, it’s exploring which ideas will produce ballot language that would appeal most to voters. Partly, it’s looking to see which other groups might back its cause.
For instance, one proposal would leave state law untouched on what special fees tobacco companies must pay stemming from a 1998 settlement over marketing their cancer-causing product. The companies agreed to make payments based on their annual national cigarette sales.
Those mostly discount brands represent a far larger part of the market in Missouri than they do in other states, where they’re treated the same as companies that were part of the settlement. Consequently, agreeing to leave the law alone might draw the support of so-called Small Tobacco.
Big Tobacco might be inclined to back another proposal drafted by the group if it changed the law.
Or one of the two might agree merely to sit out the campaign in return for steering one direction or the other.
“Having the different options strengthens our negotiating position,” said Erin Brower, the executive director of Raise Your Hand for Kids. “We’re in a three-way primary. The tobacco tax, since it is the lowest in the nation, you can understand why different interest groups are going to want to go after it.”
She argues the convenience store proposal is simply too low to discourage smoking. She contends that the colleges’ $1-a-pack tax asks more than Missouri voters are willing to raise the tax — particularly when smokers are disproportionally poor and college students tend to come from wealthier families.
Finally, the Missouri Promise Initiative is just a few weeks old. It’s yet to conduct polling or hire a consultant.
But its president, St. Louis lawyer Dudley McCarter, says the group has rounded up pledges of $200,000. More critically, it boasts backing from the state public university and community college associations and corporate alumni.
University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe has given speeches endorsing the $1-a-pack increase for scholarships. He declined, through an assistant, to comment for this story. In response to a legislator concerned that he was using his public position to push for a tax increase, Wolfe wrote “I will not be using University of Missouri resources in my support of this important initiative and will take personal time off for these activities.”
The push is also backed by Clint Zweifel, the Democratic state treasurer, and state Attorney General Chris Koster, the leading Democratic candidate for governor.
The group estimates the tax boost would raise about $340 million its first year (a figure likely to drop as smokers quit or stop shopping in Missouri for cheaper cigarettes). The scholarship money would be available to students who graduate from high schools in the state and pursue higher education in Missouri.
McCarter said the convenience store group is “just playing a strategic campaign to mess things up.” Raise Your Hand for Kids pushes a worthy cause, he said, but “we’ve got more civic boosters ready to back us than them.”
He’s also confident that traditional anti-smoking groups will joint the tax-for-scholarships camp partly because the higher surcharge would do more to discourage cigarette use.
One key group, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, declined to comment on the coming campaigns.
Harris, the Missouri political consultant, said whether and where health-oriented groups pledge their money this year could determine how many tax-boost proposals show up on the ballot and which might fare best with voters next year.
“You want to have a certain amount in hand,” he said, “and know you have some reliable sources.”