It’s Up to You

Jewish Light Editorial

Normally, writing an editorial on a measure and not taking a position is considered a copout. But in the case of Missouri Amendment 3 on the November ballot, we think that how you vote on it really depends on what you think. This is about you-as-legislator, and your vote counts just as much as anyone else’s on a critical issue.

Here’s how we would frame the issue: Does a seriously flawed, regressive tax and health measure that will ultimately increase cigarette taxes by 60 cents per pack and lead to many millions of dollars for early childhood education deserve your support?

As Sy Syms used to say in his store ads, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” That could not be more accurate as applied to Amendment 3.

It’s actually much more complicated than that because there’s another measure, Proposition A, on the ballot. That measure imposes a vastly smaller increase on cigarette taxes to fund transportation infrastructure. However, if both measures pass, there is no legal certainty as to how that would be resolved; it is likely that the issue would need to be decided by the Missouri Supreme Court. While we would accept Proposition A’s goals on transportation, it should not be considered a serious alternative.

So therefore, back to Amendment 3. The amendment has been touted for ensuring more Missouri dollars in an area of education that has been virtually universally acknowledged as one of the most critical. Effective programs for young children have been shown to bolster later learning, enhance neurological development and lead to more robust lives. So many advocates in that area have been supportive of the measure.

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The law imposes an additional tax on cigarettes to pay for the spending on education. For many health advocates, not only do so-called “sin taxes” like those on cigarettes generate revenue, but they serve as a disincentive or even a hard barrier on those who cannot afford the enhanced cost of purchasing boxes or cartons.

Perhaps that’s all to the good. On the other side of the ledger, however, are several competing considerations.

For one thing, not only are Missouri’s cigarette taxes notoriously low, but they would stay extremely low compared to many states even after the increases imposed by Amendment 3. That’s why cigarette companies got on board to support the proposed law, and lobbied extensively for language changes to benefit themselves. It is unlikely that if this legislation is passed, that there will be significant additional tax increases in Missouri on cigarettes anytime soon.

One of those changes calls for a four-year phase in of the cigarette tax addition, which also poses concerns for health advocates. The argument goes that with a flat increase that takes place all at once, the impact on reducing smoking and smokers is much higher, whereas with a phased-in approach, the consumer isn’t harmed “enough” by the slow increases to stop smoking. 

Another difficulty with the cigarette tax is that it’s a regressive tax, as with other sin taxes. While it would seem that the onus is on the user and that appears fair on the surface, a large number of smokers may fall in economic circumstances in which the ongoing purchase of cigarettes, particularly at a higher price, could have substantial impact on their lives and those of their families and children.

So how does one assess whether Amendment 3 is “worth it”? It’s very difficult. A bunch of education organizations and a variety of health institutions say yea; but there are health advocacy groups and research institutions on the other side of the ledger. Some are concerned about the impact on state stem-cell research, but there has been one judicial opinion moderating that concern and that the bill could not override state constitutional protections for that research. Others are concerned the law will fund education programs not only in public schools but in private and religious ones.

In other words, there’s no one right answer here (the ballotpedia.org website provides a good synopsis not only of the measure, but a list of some of those both for and against). St. Louis and Kansas City major metro newspapers have differed on their support of the law. It’s readily apparent this is a very tough choice.

As noted at the outset, we think the choice is really dependent on where your personal priorities lay. If you believe that adding some tax is better than none and funding early childhood education in a substantial manner is better than not funding it, then this is a Yes vote for you. However, if you believe that the increase in cigarette taxes isn’t enough, or won’t have significant enough health benefits, or you oppose the other provisions or sin taxes in general, then you may be at No.

Regardless, this is one where voting without knowledge is truly at your peril. So read up and tread carefully.