Amendment 3's Tobacco Tax Hike Has Progressives Bitterly Divided. Here's Why

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Progressive are struggling to find middle ground on Amendment 3. - PHOTO VIA FLICKR/DENIS DEFREYNE

Amendment 3 — the "Raise Your Hands for Kids" constitutional amendment increasing the state's tobacco tax — represents many things to many activists and policy wonks.

If passed by voters on November 8, the ballot measure would pour millions of dollars into funding early childhood education by raising the state's rock-bottom taxes on cigarettes. Or, as opponents say, the measure is actually a smokescreen designed to benefit Big Tobacco. Then again, could it be that Amendment 3 is a Trojan horse slyly inserting financial support for religious institutions within the state constitution? Depending on whom you ask, Amendment 3 is all these things and none of them.

The disagreements are driving wedges between progressive allies, pitting the likes of the ACLU and Planned Parenthood — both oppose Amendment 3 — against a bevy of youth-oriented health organizations, as well as Missouri's chapter of the NAACP, which support it. These are groups that otherwise agree that extending early education can make a huge difference in kids' lives and eventual careers. So what's the trouble here?

At its most basic level, Amendment 3 would add a 60-cent tax on cigarettes. An additional 67-cent "equity fee" would hit smaller tobacco companies, raising their prices to equal their name-brand competitors, which under a lawsuit settlement are obligated to reimburse Missouri for some medical costs linked to smoking.

In total, the taxes could raise more than $300 million annually, most of which would fund health and education programs for children from birth through age five. Missouri currently budgets just $37 million a year for early childhood education.

But the fact that Amendment 3's marketing blitz is being bankrolled by tobacco giant RJ Reynolds — to the tune of more than $8 million — has caused consternation among health and education groups, including the Missouri National Education Association and the American Lung Association in Missouri. And some activists have cited other potential problems with the amendment’s proposed changes to the state constitution. The text is laden with provisions that have nothing to do with childhood education. The new tax revenue cannot be used "on behalf of any abortion clinic" or to fund research involving human embryonic stem cells. And speaking of research, Amendment 3's authors also prohibit funds from going toward "tobacco-related research of any kind."

Washington University denounced Amendment 3 as a threat to Missouri's constitutional protections on stem cell research. And Planned Parenthood and NARAL blasted the measure for including restrictions on abortions. "While it is being sold as a health care initiative, this ballot measure is actively being pushed by anti-choice leaders as a way to steer government money to groups that play politics with abortion,” said NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri Executive Director Alison Dreith in a statement. Even some pro-life groups oppose Amendment 3 because simply using the word “abortion” would enshrine the concept with constitutional power. (The word “abortion” does not presently appear in the Missouri constitution.) The state's largest pro-life group, Missouri Right to Life, is officially neutral on Amendment 3.

The ACLU-Missouri has also joined the opposition, citing a provision in Amendment 3 that would allow the new tobacco tax funds to be distributed to religious institutions.

“In one hidden line, the makers of Amendment 3 are undermining our American ideal of protecting religion and democracy,” said Executive Director Jeffrey Mittman in a statement. “Amendment 3 is a dangerous Trojan Horse that violates the constitutional rights of all Missourians.”

The various criticisms and strange alliances have gotten so complicated, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s editorial board initially endorsed the measure, only to retract its support in light of the stem-cell issue. The editorial board then flopped back to support after a retired Missouri Court of Appeals judge published a legal opinion stating, basically, that Amendment 3 wouldn't affect any of the existing constitutional protections for stem-cell research.

But not everyone is so disturbed by the inclusion of language touching on stem cell research, religion and abortion. Notably, progressive St. Louis Alderwoman Megan Green, no friend to Big Tobacco, is among those supporting Amendment 3. In a series of blog posts published October 25, titled "Progressive Case to Vote YES on 3,"  Green made the argument for supporting an amendment riddled with concessions to special interests and tobacco companies.

"Contrary to some of the information that is circulating about Amendment 3, it was actually drafted by a small group of early childhood professionals. I know because I was involved in those conversations," Green wrote.

Before joining St. Louis city government, Green worked for Child Care Aware Missouri as chief of data and communications. The organization, she says, was among the first at the table when the details of Amendment 3 were being hashed out and negotiated, a process that took about two years.

In one post, Green argues that including explicit restrictions on how the funding can and cannot be used — such as prohibiting money from going to abortions and stem cell research — were based, in part, on lessons learned from previous failures to pass statewide cigarette tax referendums.

Indeed, Amendment 3 will be the fourth attempt to raise Missouri's lowest-in-the-nation cigarette taxes in the 21st century. Other proposals failed by narrow margins in 2002, with 49 percent in favor, and in 2006, with 48 percent. A 2012 ballot measure was even closer, with just over 50 percent of Missourians voting against the tax increase.

When you're losing by a bare sliver of votes, Green writes, reducing opposition from pro-life groups and tobacco companies could make all the difference in the final tally. The stakes — the well-being of children — are too high for ideological purity, she argues.

"There are special interests driving both side of this initiative to protect their interests," Green concludes in one blog post. "If I’m going to side with a special interest, I’m going to side with the one who is also willing to support kids."

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com


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