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Signature gathering underway for plan to hike Missouri's tobacco tax by 23 cents a pack

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After months of mulling over the details, an unlikely coalition of convenience stores, gas stations and low-cost cigarette companies has hit the streets to collect signatures for a proposed 23-cent-a-pack hike in Missouri’s tobacco tax – now the nation’s lowest.

Under the initiative petition that the group began circulating this week, the estimated $100 million a year that the higher tax would raise would be designated for the state’s transportation needs.

When the coalition announced its general plan last summer, it also was considering a proposal that would simply have added the $100 million to the state’s general revenue.

But after polling, it was “a no-brainer’’ that the proposal linking the tax hike to transportation had stronger support among likely voters, said Ronald J. Leone, executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association.

The association led the successful drives to defeat three larger proposed tobacco-tax hikes that were placed on Missouri’s ballots in 2002, 2006 and 2012. But Leone says his group has always been amenable to a smaller increase.

The initiative petition that it now supports would phase in the 23-cent-per-pack tax increase by 2021. Missouri's tobacco tax is currently 17-cents for a pack of cigarettes. Nationally, the average state tobacco tax is well over $1 a pack. That's on top of the federal tobacco tax of $1.01 per pack.

Leone called the proposed hike ““reasonable, but fair, and still substantial.”

“We’ll do whatever it takes to get it in the ballot,’’ he added.

The coalition has hired a signature-collection firm, and expects it will cost roughly $700,000 to gather the signatures. Roughly 120,000 will be needed, but Leone says the coalition wants to collect far more as “a cushion.”

The signatures must be turned in to the Missouri secretary of state’s office by May 8.

Other groups have filed initiative petitions to increase the tobacco tax even more. But it’s unclear which ones, if any, will actually collect signatures. Some supporters of tobacco-tax increases are paying close attention to Leone’s coalition, because of its track record in successfully killing off previous tobacco-tax hikes that made the ballot.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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