JEFFERSON CITY -A Cole County judge has ruled a 55 cent hike in the state's cigarette tax should go on this November's ballot for voters to decide.
If passed, the ballot initiative would raise a third of a billion dollars in state revenue, making Missouri the nineteenth state this year to raise tobacco taxes. Taxes on smokeless and other tobacco products also would be raised by 20 percent.
The initiative had been blocked by Secretary of State Matt Blunt, who ruled that its proponents had fallen just short of the number of signatures required.
Yesterday a Cole County judge overruled Blunt's objections, deciding that enough disputed signatures in Missouri's Second Congressional District were indeed valid for the initiative to go on the ballot.
Blunt has not ruled out an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court.
Ronald Leone, a lobbyist for an association of Missouri gas stations and convenience stores, said his group will fight the initiative in this fall's election.
"This amounts to a 324 percent increase in the tobacco sales tax," he said. "This will cause tobacco sales to hemorrhage to border states."
Leone said that higher tobacco taxes would also fuel Internet and black market sales at the expense of Missouri businesses.
Brad Ketcher, a spokesman for Citizens for a Healthy Missouri, the sponsors of the initiative, said the increased tax would be a financial boon for the state and would not make a significant impact on Missouri retailers.
"What we're really doing here is modernizing Missouri's tobacco tax and bringing it in line with other states, including our border states," he said. "That's the right thing to do, particularly when we're investing the money in health care."
The state is searching for ways to replace $436 million in nonrecurring funding used to balance this year's budget.
The proposed law stipulates the money be used only for health care, medical research, smoking prevention, and childcare programs.
In August, Blunt rejected 2,399 petition signatures from the Second Congressional District, leaving the initiative's sponsors 673 short of the 15,086 required in that district. The petitioners disputed Blunt's ruling.
Upon further review, 601 of those 2,399 signatures were validated, leaving Citizens for a Healthy Missouri just 72 short of the requirement. After hearing testimony from a handwriting expert and the St. Charles County Clerk, a judge ruled that at least 72 of the 1,600 remaining disputed signatures were genuine.
The move to raise taxes in Missouri reflects a national trend, as the slowing economy has forced cash-strapped states to search for new, politically acceptable revenue sources.
Leone said that the tax unfairly targets smokers, who comprise roughly 25 percent of Missouri's population.
Data from the American Lung Association shows that the state cigarette tax in Missouri, currently at 17 cents a pack, is the seventh lowest rate in the nation. State tobacco taxes are highest in Massachusetts at $1.51 a pack.
In New York City, cigarettes now retail for over seven dollars a pack since the imposition this year of a $1.42 city tax on top of a $1.50 state tax.
According to the ALA, smoking is responsible for one in five deaths nationally, and is the greatest cause of preventable death worldwide.
A second ballot initiative, which would give firefighters and ambulance personnel the right to collective bargaining, was approved yesterday by Blunt after initially being blocked.
The initiative's supporters had collected a sufficient number of signatures in five of the six Congressional districts required. However, in a sixth district, officials disallowed several hundred signatures due to a technicality, leaving the initiative 226 names short of the requirement.
Upon appeal from the bill's sponsors, Blunt agreed that 293 of the names ruled "not registered" had indeed been eligible.
In Missouri, an initiative must get a number of signatures equivalent to eight percent of the votes in the previous gubernatorial election.