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Judge orders tobacco tax onto Missouri's ballot
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A state judge on Monday ordered a proposed tobacco tax increase to appear on Missouri's Nov. 7 ballot, ruling that supporters had gathered enough valid petition signatures.
The decision by Cole County Circuit Judge Thomas Brown overturns a decision last month that the amendment had fallen 274 names short of the required mark in the Kansas City area.
Opponents pledged to appeal today to the Western District state Court of Appeals.
The proposed constitutional amendment would raise the state's 17-cents-a-pack cigarette tax to 97 cents and increase taxes on other tobacco products to 30 percent of the manufacturer's invoice price, instead of the current 10 percent. Projected proceeds of at least $351 million annually would go toward health-care and anti-tobacco programs.
Contrary to the conclusion of local election authorities and Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, Brown ruled the initiative had more than the 23,527 signatures required from the 5th Congressional District. Carnahan had previously determined that supporters submitted enough signatures of registered voters in five other districts, as required by law.
Brown found that an additional 1,004 signatures should have been verified as valid by local election authorities in the 5th District. Attorneys for the Committee for a Healthy Future, which is sponsoring the ballot measure, had argued that as many as 1,058 valid signatures were not counted by election authorities.
The judge also cited testimony from representatives of the Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners that they had hurried to complete the signature verification process on the tobacco initiative and had not followed normal procedures for double-checking names.
After Carnahan's initial rejection of the ballot measure, the Kansas City election board undertook its own re-examination and had found 314 additional valid signatures after reviewing about one-third of the petition pages.
The health-care organizations and patient advocacy groups backing the tobacco initiative had expressed confidence throughout the court proceedings that their measure would eventually make the ballot.
The ballot proposal has been opposed by the tobacco industry and some businesses that sell tobacco products.
The addition of 1,004 valid signatures leaves the measure with a cushion of 730 signatures in the 5th District, which includes part of Kansas City but also other parts of Jackson and Cass counties.
"They as of today have an order from a court putting them on the ballot, but that's not much to cheer about when you consider they're barely on the ballot," said Marc Ellinger, an attorney for the opposition group Missourians Against Tax Abuse.
Ellinger said he hoped to persuade an appeals court to whittle down that signature count. Opponents also plan to appeal their rejected constitutional claims that the ballot measure has more than one subject and illegally appropriates money.
Today's court ruling was reminiscent of 2002, when a slightly smaller tobacco tax initiative also was initially rejected by then-Secretary of State Matt Blunt, but then ordered to appear on the ballot by Brown. Voters ultimately defeated the 2002 measure with 51 percent of the vote.
Since then, most other states have increased their tobacco taxes. Missouri's 17-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes now ranks as the second lowest in the nation.
Based on an assumed $351 million in additional annual tax revenues, the ballot proposal would distribute:
-- $102 million for health care services, which could be offered through Medicaid, to Missourians with incomes up to twice the federal poverty level, which is about $19,600 for an individual or $40,000 for a family of four.
-- $102 million to increase the Medicaid payments to primary-care physicians and specialists.
-- $61 million for anti-tobacco efforts, including media campaigns, community programs and self-help programs that encourage tobacco users to quit.
-- $44 million for trauma centers and hospital emergency rooms that treat Medicaid patients and the uninsured.
-- $38 million to "safety net" health care clinics that treat a substantial number of uninsured people.
-- $4 million for emergency ambulance services for Medicaid patients.
The tax would take effect Jan. 1, with the programs to be implemented within six months after that.