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Backers of Missouri tobacco tax hike tout new poll

Raise Your Hand for Kids released a poll Friday showing a majority of Missouri voters would support raising the tobacco tax to fund early childhood education.
Raise Your Hand for Kids released a poll Friday showing a majority of Missouri voters would support raising the tobacco tax to fund early childhood education. skeyser@kcstar.com

A new poll shows 53 percent of likely Missouri voters would support increasing the tobacco tax to fund early childhood education, an additional 4 percent lean toward supporting the idea, and 14 percent are undecided.

A nonprofit called Raise Your Hand for Kids is pushing a ballot measure this fall that would ask Missouri voters to amend the state constitution to gradually raise the 17-cents-per-pack tobacco tax, the lowest in the nation, by 60 cents and use the new money to pay for early childhood education and preventive health programs.

Raise Your Hand for Kids released the poll Friday. It was conducted by National Research Inc. by phone from July 23-25 and surveyed 600 likely voters by phone. The margin of error is 4 percentage points.

The group collected more than 300,000 signatures to place the measure on the November ballot, but whether the push will be successful is unclear.

Opponents of the proposal sued earlier this year, saying the ballot summary written by Secretary of State Jason Kander was inadequate. The Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District agreed, and in July the court rewrote the summary, putting into question whether the signatures previously collected were still valid.

Kander has said that if he determines enough signatures were collected, he’ll place the issue on the ballot, a move opponents say would be illegal and certain to spark more litigation.

The poll released Friday mentions the lawsuits aimed at blocking the ballot measure and asks whether “Missourians deserve the right to vote on this measure in November, and that legal efforts to block it should be rejected.” Eighty percent said yes; 13 percent said no.

When they are read the language of the proposed constitutional amendment, nearly six in 10 voters say they would vote for the ballot initiative to raise the cigarette tax as a means to pay for early childhood education in the state, while 29 percent would vote against it.

“The polling is clear: Missourians strongly support expanding early childhood education in our state,” said Jane Dueker, spokeswoman for Raise Your Hand for Kids. “They know how important it is to raising graduation rates, improving the economy and helping our kids become more responsible adults.”

The battle over the Raise Your Hand for Kids proposal started late last year.

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

Over the last eight months, Raise Your Hands for Kids has faced accusations that its proposal could permit state funding for abortions, undercut constitutional protections for stem cell research and steer tax dollars to religious schools. The group denies each allegation, arguing that value-brand cigarette manufacturers are trying to protect a pricing advantage they currently enjoy.

Big tobacco companies like R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris were included in a 1998 legal settlement that forced them to make annual payments to Missouri to cover the health damage their products caused smokers. Smaller tobacco companies were not included in that settlement.

The early childhood education ballot measure, which is being paid for by the parent company of R.J. Reynolds, would do away with the pricing advantage of smaller tobacco companies in Missouri. That’s why Big Tobacco and Little Tobacco have so much at stake in the fate of the early childhood initiative.

Ron Leone, executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association, called the Raise Your Hand for Kids proposal a “Trojan horse for bad public policies.” He indicated Friday’s poll was an attempt to put pressure on the courts to allow the measure to appear on the ballot, a tactic he says will ultimately fail.

“Big Tobacco continues to deceive voters about its tax-raising scheme,” he said. “The courts won’t be swayed by deceptive polls or efforts to coerce judges with public pressure.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock

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