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McCaskill continues to press for tobacco tax increase

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 10, 2012 - U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill is running for a federal office, but that’s not stopping her from continuing to voice boisterous support for an initiative to raise taxes on tobacco products.

Soon after she gave remarks to a group of business leaders last Friday at the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association, McCaskill was asked by an audience member her thoughts about the future of the St. Louis region. After expressing concern about what the state’s budget would look like in coming years, McCaskill said “we pay a price for being a very low tax state.”

“And I think we’ve got to be careful that we’re not so wedded to that,” McCaskill said. “I think the cigarette tax is a great example. I mean, I’m not supposed to stand up in front of you – I’ve got a really hard election in less in 60 days. Fifty-nine to be exact, but who’s counting? I’m not supposed to say that I’m for a tax increase. That’s politically not allowed. It’s the right thing to do.”

The initiative – which was approved for the November ballot last month – would boost Missouri’s tobacco tax by 73 cents from 17 cents to 90 cents a pack, with money going toward smoking cession programs, K-12 education and higher education. A fiscal note of the initiative estimates that it could bring in anywhere from $283 million to $423 million of increased revenue.

Supportive groups to the initiative include the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the Missouri State Medical Association. The ACS has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to a PAC aiming to pass the ballot item. The measure's also received backing from Attorney General Chris Koster and primarily Democratic state legislators.

While Missourians narrowly voted against raising tobacco taxes back in 2002 and 2006, both the Columbia Tribune and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have reported that larger companies will probably not get involved this time around. Their inaction stems from a provision in the initiative that would prompt smaller tobacco companies that aren’t participating in a master settlement agreement to contribute to a fund for smoking-related expenses.

A political action committee opposed to initiative has still received substantial amounts of money from smaller tobacco manufacturers and convenience stores. North Carolina-base Cheyenne International LLC gave the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association PAC $200,000 earlier this year. Fenton-based U-Gas Inc. gave that PAC $50,000 in August. 

But McCaskill said on Friday it would be difficult to argue that gas stations would be harmed if “they’re the cheapest game in town.”

“We can raise our cigarette tax like they’re proposing to do and they’re still going to flock to Missouri to buy their cigarettes in the Midwest," McCaskill said. "We’ll be the cheapest cigarettes in the whole Midwest with the additional tax.”

“In the meantime, we get that money and we can get some money to UMSL and we can get some money to these higher education institutions that are really taking it on the chin in this downturn when it relates to funding,” she added. “It’s why our tuition’s gotten so high. And that hurts our economy down the line, because it really diminishes the buying power of young people as they get out of college. They’re not buying a new car. They’re not going to buy a house, because they’ve got this student loan to service.”

A spokesman for McCaskill's opponent - U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood - did not respond to a message from the Beacon about his position on the initiative.

Contrast with Nixon

This isn’t the first time McCaskill made a statement in favor of tobacco tax increase. In fact, she made similar comments while speaking in Mid-Missouri last week during a tour of college campuses.

But her vocal support is in contrast to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who has generally stayed mum on the issue.

For instance, Nixon was quoted last week by KMOX as saying that he wouldn’t get involved in the tobacco tax campaign. When asked by the Beacon whether that meant the governor wouldn’t be taking a position on the ballot item, a Nixon spokesman sent audio of the press conference where he made the statement.

“We’ll wait until the public decision on that in November when it gets in front of them. I have said clearly over my four years of governor, I have attempted to and will continue to hold the line on taxes,” said Nixon in response to a question about what his opinion was on the initiative. “I don’t expect to be active in any way in that campaign and we will await the verdict of Missourians this fall.”

Jared Craighead - a spokesman for Republican gubenatorial nominee Dave Spence - said in an e-mail that the Kirkwood businessman "does not believe we should be raising any taxes on hard-working Missourians."

At the beginning of the 2012 session, then-House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, and Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said a tobacco tax increase was a non-starter. Mayer said it’s “not the time to be talking about increasing the tax burden on any segment of our society."

But even though she predicted that she “probably made some people mad” with her support for the initiative, McCaskill said the public policy implications are too important to ignore.

“I’m proud to tell you that I’ll be voting yes on the increase in the cigarette tax,” McCaskill said. “And if that costs me this election, then so be it. It’s the right thing to do for our state.”

McCaskill has in the past commented on state government-related issues. She said in July that it would be a "mistake" for Missouri lawmakers to reject expanding Medicaid and establishing health insurance exchanges. She was critical in 2007 of how Gov. Matt Blunt’s administration handled state e-mails in the wake of the Scott Eckersley controversy.And she was prominent proponent of the 2006 stem cell initiative, support that extended to a memorable ad featuring actor Michael J. Fox.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.