Tobacco tax narrowly defeated

Wednesday, November 6, 2002

AP Political Writer

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- By a slim margin, Missouri voters rejected a proposal that would have quadrupled the state cigarette tax to boost spending for health care.

Proposition A would have raised the cigarette tax to 72 cents a pack from the current 17 cents and raised other tobacco taxes by 20 percent.

Although passing in the state's urban areas in Tuesday's election, the measure failed across much of rural Missouri.

With nearly all precincts reporting and almost 1.8 million votes counted, the proposed tax increase failed by a statewide margin of less than 30,000 votes.

Opponents, with a relatively low-budget campaign, had criticized the proposal as unfairly taxing the one-quarter of adult Missourians who smoke while directly only a small portion of the revenues to smoking-related illnesses. They also described the tax as an expansion of government bureaucracy.

Supporters had spent more than $4.5 million during a nearly two-year effort to get the measure on the ballot and then promote it. They had outspent opponents 50-to-1, according to campaign finance reports filed less than two weeks before the election.

"It's a great day for Missouri when $5 million can't buy an election and can't turn a bad idea into a good idea," said Ron Leone, executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association.

Ron Spidle, a spokesman for the opposing group Missourians Against Unfair Taxes, said the results showed that people -- smokers and non-smokers alike -- objected to a tax that would have affected a small percentage of the population.

"We're not Missourians against taxes, we're Missourians against unfair taxes," Spidle said early Wednesday. "And we think the people of the state of Missouri are speaking their minds."

Proposition A would have directed its new tax revenues primarily to health care. For example, reimbursement rates would have risen significantly for doctors and hospital trauma centers that treat low-income patients. And more Missourians could have become eligible for an expanded state Medicaid program.

Money also would have gone toward such things as prescription drugs for low-income seniors, life sciences research, early childhood centers and anti-tobacco efforts.

Brad Ketcher, a spokesman of the supporting Citizens for a Healthy Missouri, described the proposal's defeat as unfortunate.

"The health care needs that Proposition A would have addressed are not going to go away just because the ballot measure failed," Ketcher said.

The tax increase was projected to raise $342.6 million annually, according to the official ballot estimate. But Gov. Bob Holden's budget office was projecting $311.8 million for next fiscal year, with revenues declining thereafter because of an expected decrease in tobacco use.

Many of the programs designated for funding under Proposition A were the same ones that had been budgeted to receive money from Missouri's share of a national legal settlement with big tobacco companies.

But last year, Holden withheld that money from life sciences, early childhood programs and anti-tobacco efforts in order to help cover shortfalls in other parts of Missouri's budget.

Because of continued financial concerns this year, legislators again directed much of the settlement money to fill gaps in the budget.

Supporters said Proposition A would guarantee a funding source that could not be diverted from its intended programs.

Initially, Secretary of State Matt Blunt had said the proposal fell short of the petition signatures needed to make the ballot. After supporters sued, Blunt's office determined that some initially rejected signatures were, in fact, valid. So he agreed to place the measure before voters.

Ketcher said the legal delay hurt supporters by decreasing the time they had to promote the measure.

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