Government & Politics

Campaign to raise tobacco tax in Missouri caught in anti-abortion snag


Cigarettes fill the shelves at Main Street Tobacco & Gifts in Kansas City.
Cigarettes fill the shelves at Main Street Tobacco & Gifts in Kansas City.

Supporters of a constitutional amendment to increase Missouri’s tobacco tax to pay for early childhood education have run into an unusual problem.

As they tote their clipboards around the state collecting petition signatures to put the question on the November ballot, some people are refusing to sign because they say the measure secretly funds abortion.

“This is completely untrue,” said Linda Rallo, executive director of Raise Your Hands for Kids, the group pushing the tax proposal.

She later added: “Our proposal is about the health and education of children and smoking cessation — that’s it.”

Even though Rallo has gotten the state’s largest anti-abortion group — Missouri Right to Life — to sign off on her proposal, she continues to fend off false accusations that it’s some sort of clandestine attempt to steer tax money to abortion providers.

And as concerns on one side of the abortion debate are soothed, they’ve emerged anew on the other side, with groups supporting stem cell research publicly questioning the proposal.

How did a debate over preschool and quitting smoking get so embroiled in the culture wars?

Rallo places the blame on a group that has historically fought off attempts to increase the state’s lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax: the Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association.

“Our hope is that once the word gets out about their (ballot measure), they’ll be unable to collect the signatures needed to get on the ballot,” said Ron Leone, executive director of the association, which represents gas station and convenience store owners.

The back and forth marks the opening salvo of a battle that promises to rage into the fall, when Missouri voters may have the choice between two rival tobacco tax increases when they go to the polls.

And how the debate evolved opens a window into the high-stakes fight to get an issue on the ballot in Missouri.

Grand compromise

It seemed like peace was at hand.

Three times in the last 15 years, efforts to raise the cigarette tax ran into a buzz saw of opposition from convenience store owners and discount cigarette companies. All three times Missouri voters rejected the tax hike by razor-thin margins.

But last fall, the opposition decided it might be time for a truce.

Leone’s group had a proposal of its own, which would incrementally increase Missouri’s 17-cent per pack tobacco tax by 23 cents. The new revenue from the increase would be put toward road repairs.

Rallo’s group wanted to amend the state’s constitution to raise the tax 60 cents per pack and use the new money to pay for early childhood education and preventative health programs.

So Leone faced a choice. Should his organization mount an expensive campaign to put its proposal on the ballot or save its money to fight off the Raise Your Hands for Kids proposal?

He sought a third option.

“We finally wanted to take control of our fate and stop being on defense,” Leone said.

He approached the rival campaign with an offer. The convenience store owners would abandon their proposal and instead help get the early childhood measure on the ballot.

In exchange, Leone’s group demanded that the tax increase be lower than originally envisioned — 40 cents instead of 60 cents — and contain a rollback provision that would undo the tax increase if another tobacco tax hike was placed on the ballot in the future.

“We’d like some protection for the foreseeable future,” Leone said. “If we support a tax increase, we want to decrease the likelihood that someone will come along a year from now with another tobacco tax increase to pile on top of it.”

But the détente wasn’t meant to be.

Rallo said the main reason a compromise couldn’t be struck was the rollback provision, which detractors have dubbed a “poison pill.” The tax increase would disappear if another tobacco tax hike gets on the ballot, whether it is ultimately approved by voters or not.

That makes the funding stream for early childhood education completely unstable, Rallo said. She also questioned whether the provision is even constitutional, and if it isn’t, whether it could cause the entire proposal to be tossed out by a court down the road.

“The take-it-or-leave-it offer wasn’t ever going to work because of the poison pill,” Rallo said. “It was just too extreme.”

Abortion politics

With a truce out of the question, the only thing left to do was fight.

Chuck Hatfield, a veteran Jefferson City lawyer who helped draft Leone’s ballot measure, sued to try to keep the early childhood constitutional amendment off the November ballot.

Hatfield made several arguments challenging the legality of the proposal, but one piece struck a chord with some anti-abortion activists.

The proposal specifically says none of the tobacco tax revenue can go to any “abortion clinic, abortion clinic operator, or outpatient health care facility that provides abortion services,” and then adds one more clause: “Unless such services are limited to medical emergencies.”

Abortion foes latched on to those last eight words.

“It doesn’t define what an emergency is,” Hatfield said. “When you’re dealing with the constitution, words matter, because it’s not easy to fix if you get it wrong.”

Edward Greim, a Kansas City lawyer representing Raise Your Hands for Kids, says the idea that the proposal is somehow a method for funding abortions “is absurd” and a “politically motivated rumor.”

Abortions don’t fall into the permissible uses of the money from a proposed tax hike, he said. To make sure that’s the case, he said the measure also includes provisions specifically barring use by abortion providers.

“These efforts to mislead the public are not just politics as usual,” Greim said in a memo defending the proposal. “They come with a real cost to the entire pro-life movement.”

The state’s largest anti-abortion group agrees with Greim.

“We’ve had a team of lawyers looking at every detail of the language,” said Susan Klein, legislative liaison for Missouri Right to Life. “Our lawyers have come to the conclusion that we have pro-life protections that we need in this initiative, and the funds collected through this tax will not go to abortions, human cloning or embryonic stem cell research.”

Mike Hoey, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, said he has read the proposal. “I don’t see a problem with it,” he said. “The protections appear to be there. It looked pretty good to me.”

That didn’t stop the accusation first raised in Hatfield’s lawsuit from spreading like wildfire after Republican state Rep. Joe Don McGaugh of Carrollton posted on his Facebook page that Raise Your Hands for Kids was trying to “funnel money towards liberal causes, including the possibility of adding language for public funds to be used for abortions in Missouri’s Constitution.”

The post was shared 60 times, including by a handful of Republican lawmakers and local Republican organizations.

Rallo responded to McGaugh with a statement saying that “we can agree or not agree on the merits of a reasonable and modest cigarette tax increase, but let’s all agree that misinformation has no place in helping voters make rational and informed decisions about our state’s public policies.”

Stem cells

While the concerns of anti-abortion activists were being stoked, advocates of stem cell research started to grumble.

The Stowers Institute for Medical Research privately has raised concerns about the early childhood proposal, but directed The Star’s request for comment to the stem cell advocacy group Missouri Cures Education Foundation.

Missouri Cures Chairman Donn Rubin said a 2006 constitutional amendment protects stem cell research in Missouri. By including prohibitions on tobacco tax revenue from going to things like embryonic stem cell research and human cloning in the Missouri Constitution, Rubin said the early childhood proposal calls into question those protections.

“The Missouri Constitution is crystal clear in terms of protecting stem cell research,” Rubin said. “To add something to the constitution that muddies those protections would be dangerous.”

Rallo said the early childhood measure isn’t “some kind of Trojan horse.”

“There’s no underhanded or secret agenda,” Rallo said. “We’re trying to do something positive for Missouri, and our opponents are willing to twist things and spread lies to hurt us.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock