Missouri has the lowest tobacco tax in the nation. Shane Keyser skeyser@kcstar.com
Missouri has the lowest tobacco tax in the nation. Shane Keyser skeyser@kcstar.com

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Missouri tobacco tax hike campaigns face court battles, ethics complaints

By Jason Hancock

jhancock@kcstar.com

May 20, 2016 11:52 AM

JEFFERSON CITY

A ruling by a Cole County judge has put the fate of a proposed ballot measure raising Missouri’s tobacco tax in jeopardy. Meanwhile, the idea’s main opponent faces allegations that it violated state campaign finance law.

The developments are just the latest in a long and contentious struggle over Missouri’s lowest-in-the-nation tobacco tax and the rival campaigns looking to beat each other to the fall ballot.

Cole County Circuit Judge Dan Green ruled Thursday that the financial estimate prepared by the state auditor’s office for a proposed ballot measure raising the 17-cents-per-pack tobacco tax by 60 cents over five years was insufficient and unfair.

He said the auditor’s estimate for how much money the tax would raise didn’t account for a possible drop in cigarette sales because of higher cigarette prices.

Green directed the auditor to come up with a new estimate.

That ruling could mean the more than 300,000 signatures collected to put the proposal on the fall ballot by the nonprofit Raise Your Hand for Kids are no longer valid.

Raise Your Hand for Kids’ attorney, Edward Greim, said an appeal has already been filed with the Western District Court of Appeals.

Earlier in the week, Greim filed a formal complaint with the Missouri Ethics Commission against the Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association and its executive director, Ron Leone.

The group is pushing a rival tobacco tax hike ballot measure aimed at funding road and bridge repair. It has also been an outspoken opponent of the Raise Your Hand for Kids proposal.

The complaint says the Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association never amended its paperwork with the state ethics commission stating that it was supporting or opposing a ballot measure, despite making numerous expenditures on behalf of its campaign and against Raise Your Hand for Kids.

This is a violation of state law, Greim said.

In a written statement to The Star, Leone called the complaint “frivolous and desperate.”

Raise Your Hands for Kids’ proposed constitutional amendment would phase in a 60-cent-per-pack increase from 2017 to 2020. It also would impose an additional 67-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes from tobacco companies that didn’t participate in a 1998 legal settlement involving Missouri and 45 other states.

The campaign is being funded by the parent company of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Leone’s group is largely funded by largely funded by smaller, value-brand cigarette companies like Cheyenne International LLC and Xcaliber International Ltd.

The Missouri secretary of state’s office has until Aug. 9 to verify whether either campaigns gathered enough signatures from registered voters to qualify for the November ballot.

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