Group hopes to get support for new tobacco tax

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COLUMBIA - A Missouri group advocating for a tobacco tax increase said a new report released Monday should support the cause, which has some vocal opponents.

The group, Raise Your Hand for the Kids, said it hopes to place a tobacco tax increase on the November 2016 ballot.

The tax would increase by 50 cents in Missouri, bringing it to 67 cents. Missouri's tax is currently the lowest in the nation.

The group said the increase would bring about $250 million to fund early childhood education and health programs in the state, although some local business advocates are skeptical.

Tobacco tax increases have failed with voters in the past, most recently 2002, 2006, and 2012.

Erin Brower, executive director of Raise Your Hand for the Kids, said she thinks the new proposal is different.

"Two quarters, I think people can understand that. It's a modest increase," she said. "I think past attempts were too high. I think 50 cents seems like that magic number that people can understand."

The Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association based in Jefferson City has opposed tobacco tax increases in the past.

Executive director Ron Leone said he thinks it's still too much.

"It's outrageous and unfair," he said. "It's a near 300 percent tax increase."

Leone said the association would be fine with a tax that was reasonable, maybe a 100 percent tax increase, to 34 cents.

He also said the proposal would hurt small businesses and the tax revenue that rely on cross-border sales.

"The rosy projections of however much money this is going to raise is ridiculous because they never take into account the consequences of their 300 percent tax increase," Leone said. 

Brower said she thinks it will have the opposite effect on Missouri. She said it would improve the economy by increasing the early education workforce.

"We disagree that this will be hurting small businesses," she said. "We're really thinking this is one of the best economic tools we can have with the state by helping parents go to work, creating that net 3,300 jobs and building our future workforce."

Boone County Community Services Director Kelly Wallis said she appreciates anything that goes toward early childhood services, and likes that the proposed tax revenue would be handled at the county level. 

"I think having the local control over the money will have a more direct impact on what the tax is intended for," she said. 

Leone said he thinks that, although the control would get to the local level, it still has to go through the state, and he said he is not sure the money will be appropriated the way proponents of the tax would like.

"Court cases have clearly indicated when it comes to taxes the legislature controls and can pretty much do whatever they want with the money regardless of what the law says," he said. "You essentially have competing law and appropriations."

Brower said Raise Your Hand for the Kids has found overwhelming support for the tax and early childhood during tours of the state. She said the group will advocate as much as it can for the funds to be appropriated to the right place.

"We know this is the game changer we need in Missouri, this is really our one shot to do it," she said. "The time is right, the time is now, and failure just really isn't an option."