It’s still lying there — the lowest cigarette sales tax in the nation, ripe for an increase.
But a brewing Missouri campaign seeking dollars for early childhood health and education knows that getting voters to increase the tax for a cause is not the low-hanging fruit it might seem.
Three times since 2002, different Missouri groups have petitioned voters and put a cigarette sales tax boost on the statewide ballot, only to see it fail.
The Raise Your Hand for Kids campaign is immersed these days in town hall forums from St. Joseph to Cape Girardeau, trying to hone myriad issues and strategies into a simple, urgent message aimed at November 2016.
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It’s for kids, they say. It’s Missouri’s future. It’s an economic investment.
“If it gets confusing,” Erin Brower of the Alliance for Childhood Education told a recent town hall with mostly supporters at Kansas City’s Union Station, “nobody gets any money.”
Just in case anyone was given to overconfidence, Missouri Rep. T.J. Berry of Kearney rose in the Union Station audience with a word of warning.
His words were those of a fiscal conservative, the Republican lawmaker said. He was the sponsor in 2013 of House Bill 253, which sought broad state tax reductions and fell to Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto.
Berry had listened to the recitation of facts that Missouri’s 17-cents-a-pack tax is nowhere near the rate of neighboring states, including 79 cents in Kansas, 64 cents in Nebraska, $1.03 in Oklahoma and $1.36 in Iowa.
He heard their polling numbers, the statewide strategies and their sense that a 50-cent increase was possible.
And be assured, Berry told the crowd, that he is a conservative who supports the idea of a tobacco tax for a good cause as a further means of discouraging smoking.
But he also knows how easy it will be to attack the idea in a conservative state.
They’ll say: “They’re tripling our tax?!”
That will be hard to fight, Berry said.
The campaign thinks it is learning some lessons from its travels, surveys and analysis of other campaigns’ shortfalls.
Tyler Nottberg, the CEO of U.S. Engineering and a board member of the Alliance for Childhood Education, urged the campaign to keep its message simple but broad.
“There is a huge opportunity for a larger vision,” he said. “This is an economic development issue.”
The Alliance for Childhood Education, a coalition of Kansas and Missouri business leaders, is teaming with the St. Louis-based Missouri Wonk political research and analysis firm to support the tobacco tax campaign.
The campaign completed a round of surveys this fall and will be carrying out community meetings throughout the state into February, then knuckle down and determine the policies that will underlie the ballot initiative.
The working plan is eyeing a 50-cent increase as the optimum amount voters would support.
The campaign expects it will ask voters to approve a statutory increase rather than seek a constitutional amendment, Brower said.
The surveys show voters are more comfortable changing laws than changing the state constitution, she said.
The risk is that lawmakers could choose later to alter the law, but that drives the importance of establishing strong policies with accountability and safeguards that help build business and community support, Brower said.
A 50-cent increase would generate some $250 million a year, which would mean about $550 per child statewide between birth and age 5.
The campaign thinks voters would want local control over the distribution of dollars to programs and services, meaning the policies need to identify or create local boards, perhaps through county commissioners.
An auditing process would need to be in place.
Past campaigns proposed dedicating funds to multiple program areas, including support to services that help people quit smoking. But Raise Your Hands for Kids is looking to be direct and simple — for early childhood and the state’s economic future.
The opposition that helped defeat past efforts was led by the convenience store industry and the tobacco industry, Brower said.
The Raise Your Hand for Kids leadership team has been meeting with industry leaders. And the chance that they might support it, or at least not fight it, is not out of the question, Brower said. The previous campaigns sought higher increases, as much as 80 cents a pack, and did not lose by much.
“They’re sick of fighting it,” she said. “There are costs to them.”
The sobering truth, several people at the rally noted, is that a 50-cent tax increase, if it were to happen, would be seed funding at the most. The potential for $550 per child would meet only a sliver of the thousands of dollars a year it takes to provide a child with high-quality health and education services.
Part of the campaign, if it is successful come 2016, will have to protect the funding that the state already provides and dispel notions that $250 million a year solves it.
For now the state chips away, carving out $15.2 million for Parents as Teachers and $12.7 million for the Missouri Preschool Project and passing legislation that will allow unaccredited and provisionally accredited school districts to include economically disadvantaged preschool children in basic state funding.
“We know what we need to do,” Brower said. “The problem is we’re not treating it as the priority it needs to be.”