The Buzz

As accusations fly, campaign to raise Missouri’s tobacco tax pushes forward

Linda Rallo, executive director of Raise Your Hands for Kids, is pushing for Missouri to put on the November ballot a proposal for raising the tobacco tax. However, she’s run into opposition.
Linda Rallo, executive director of Raise Your Hands for Kids, is pushing for Missouri to put on the November ballot a proposal for raising the tobacco tax. However, she’s run into opposition.

Over the course of the last year, Linda Rallo has been accused of a lot of things.

At one point, she was supposedly trying to steer public funds to abortion providers. Then she was part of a clandestine effort to undercut constitutional protections for stem cell research. She’s been called a shill for big tobacco and an enemy of public schools.

Rallo, who serves as executive director of the nonprofit Raise Your Hand for Kids, says the reality is far less sinister.

“I’m just trying to do something good for my state,” she said. “Unfortunately, there are people out there who want to twist things and distort the truth.”

Rallo’s group has spent months collecting signatures to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot asking Missouri voters to gradually raise the 17-cents-per-pack tobacco tax, the lowest in the nation, by 60 cents and use the new money pay for early childhood education and preventive health programs.

Raise Your Hand for Kids turned in its signatures Saturday to the Missouri secretary of state’s office.

But the closer it gets to winning a coveted spot on the statewide ballot, the louder its opponents have grown.

Its chief adversary is the Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association, a group that is funded by value-brand cigarette companies and has helped sink numerous previous tobacco tax increases. This year, it has an initiative petition of its own that would increase the tobacco tax by 23 cents and put the extra money toward road repairs.

That group also plans to turn in its signatures over the weekend, and its attorney has filed a lawsuit seeking to keep Raise Your Hand for Kids’ proposal off the November ballot.

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City don’t like that the tax hike would be phased in. And they hate that Raise Your Hand for Kids is being funded by the parent company of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. They announced they would not support the measure last month.

Perhaps most troubling to Rallo, though, is the fact that several former supporters of Raise Your Hand for Kids recently pulled their endorsements over accusations that the proposed amendment could harm constitutional protections for stem cell research.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch fed those concerns when it ran a retraction of its previous editorial supporting Raise Your Hand for Kids’ efforts.

The portion of Rallo’s proposal causing so much heartburn says than none of the tobacco tax revenue can go to any “abortion clinic, abortion clinic operator, or outpatient health care facility that provides abortion services, unless such services are limited to medical emergencies.”

It goes on to say that that none of the money can be used for “human cloning, clinical trials or therapies or cures using human embryonic stem cells.”

At first, opposition was ginned up among anti-abortion groups, who feared that the “medical emergencies” portion was too vague and could mean public money being available to abortion providers.

Missouri Right to Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group, quickly batted down that theory, saying they were comfortable with the language.

But as Rallo was soothing concerns on one side of the abortion issue, fears were ramping up on the other.

Stem-cell advocates argued that the language pertaining to human cloning and embryonic stem cells could undercut protections for research that currently exist in the Missouri Constitution.

Washington University in St. Louis said the proposal “erodes protections for promising medical research involving stem cells.” One Democratic lawmaker, St. Louis County Sen. Jill Schupp, rescinded her endorsement over the issue. The Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, a stem cell advocacy group, donated $200,000 to a political action committee opposing the tobacco tax increase.

Raise Your Hand for Kids fought back with a legal analysis provided by James Dowd, a former judge on the Missouri Court of Appeals who is now an attorney in private practice. Dowd concluded that there is “no conflict at all” between the Raise Your Hand for Kids proposal and stem cell research protections in the Missouri Constitution.

“The stem cell language in the proposed amendment simply cannot be read as prohibiting any type of research or medical treatment,” Dowd wrote. “A plain reading of the ‘stem cell language’ leads to the inescapable conclusion that funds generated by the increased cigarette tax must be expended to benefit the health and education of Missouri’s children, and nothing more.”

Rallo said the fact that the early childhood tobacco tax is facing so many attacks bodes well for its chances in the fall.

“It’s a good amendment and has a high likelihood of being successful,” she said, “and that’s why people are trying to keep us off the ballot.”

Opponents of the measure are undeterred.

“There are so many public policy poison pills tucked into the Big Tobacco proposal,” said Ron Leone, executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association, which represents gas station and convenience store owners. “There’s something for everyone to dislike.”

Turning in signatures to get the proposal on the ballot was a big win for Rallo’s group. But it still has a long way to go.

The Missouri secretary of state must certify that the proper number of signatures was collected. And the measure must survive the lawsuit by the convenience store owners, which could knock it off the ballot. Then comes the actual campaign to persuade Missourians to vote for the tax hike this fall.

“I think it’s good that I went into this thing a little naive about how hard it would be,” Rallo said. “But we have no intention of stopping. It’s too important.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock