Crazy conspiracy theory threatens to derail worthy bid to help children in Missouri

A plan to increase Missouri’s lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax is running into resistance.
A plan to increase Missouri’s lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax is running into resistance. The Associated Press

No one ever said democracy was rational. Not in Missouri, anyway.

For a textbook case on how a good idea can be put through the wringer, check out the duplicitous attempts to muddle an effort to fund early childhood education with lies about abortion.

A statewide alliance, Raise Your Hands for Kids, is collecting signatures for a ballot proposal to increase Missouri’s sales tax on tobacco products from 17 cents — the lowest in the nation — to 77 cents. The increased revenues would be used to fund preschool programs.

The tax boost would result in less smoking and many more children better prepared for elementary school.

But healthy goals have never impressed the Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association, a canny lobbyist arm that has successfully fended off three past ballot initiatives to increase the tobacco tax.

To confuse voters, the association is halfheartedly floating its own proposal for a smaller cigarette tax increase to fund road repairs.

And it is encouraging a smear campaign that falsely insinuates that the campaign for early childhood education would also allow for public funding for abortions.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The amendment’s language specifically says that none of the funds raised by the tax can be used for any activity that involves abortion services.

But then it adds, “unless such services are limited to medical emergencies.” That’s boilerplate constitutional language similar to what was used in 2012, the last time a tobacco tax increase was put before the public.

Opponents have pounced and are spreading the word that this year’s amendment just might open the door to taxpayer money being used for abortions.

It doesn’t help that a few hysteria-prone state lawmakers are spreading the falsehood on Facebook. Why bother with facts when there’s a juicy conspiracy theory to be disseminated?

In a development that undoubtedly delights opponents, boosters of medical research have gotten involved in the spat. They’re worried because the amendment’s language also specifies that none of the sales tax proceeds will go toward research using human embryonic stem cells. That sets a bad precedent, researchers say.

But that language, too, is strictly precautionary. The amendment clearly spells out that the sales tax money would be used to help young children get off to a good start. Any other suggestion is destructive, self-serving trickery.