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Monday deadline looms for tobacco-tax backers to appeal devastating court ruling

Discarded cigarette butts in a sand receptacle. Eleven people were indicted today over contraband cigarettes in Missouri and Illinois. (via Flickr/ curran.kelleher)
Curran | Flickr
Discarded cigarette butts in a sand receptacle. Eleven people were indicted today over contraband cigarettes in Missouri and Illinois. (via Flickr/ curran.kelleher)

Updated with reaction: Backers of a ballot proposal to increase Missouri’s tobacco tax apparently have only until 4 p.m. Monday to seek a rehearing or an appeal of a court ruling that otherwise could keep the measure off the November ballot.

Late Saturday, the backers — officially known as the Raise Your Hand for Kids coalition — filed the paperwork to do just that. Other players in the court fight still face the Monday deadline.

All of the action comes after a state appeals court ruled Friday that the ballot summary for the proposed constitutional amendment was  “unfair, insufficient and likely to mislead voters.”

Raise Your Hand for Kids is proposing a tax hike of as much as $1.27 on each pack of cigarettes to pay for health care and education programs for children. The parent company for tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds has bankrolled most of the campaign.

The Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District, which issued Friday’s ruling, rewrote the summary that would appear on the ballot. However, that action — if it withstands any appeal — could result in tossing out more than 300,000 signatures that Raise Your Hand for Kids had submitted to secretary of state’s office.

But in its opinion, the court specifically said that it was not ruling on whether the signatures were valid. That job remains with the secretary of state's office.

State law requires that initiative petitions have the correct ballot summary. It’s well past the deadline for the group to collect new signatures with a revised summary. Still, some lawyers involved in the case privately contend that the courts are unlikely to toss out valid signatures, and could allow the measure to still go on the ballot, just with a revised ballot summary.

However, Chuck Hatfield — the lawyer for the plaintiff that filed the suit against the proposal — contends that the outlook doesn't look good for Raise Your Hands for Kids. "There's still time on the clock, but they're losing right now,'' he said.

Raise Your Hands for Kids spokesman James Harris said Sunday, "Our opponents continue to push in court to overturn the will of these 330,000 Missourians and prevent a robust system of early childhood education. While we respectfully disagree with the opinion of the court today as to the ballot summary, we recognize that never in Missouri’s history have the courts prevented a campaign that obtained the required amount of signatures from making the ballot due to a ballot title or fiscal note challenge.

"Therefore, we plan to review the opinion and file the appropriate appeal so that a higher court can clear the way for this initiative to appear on the November ballot. More importantly, we look forward to taking our campaign for early childhood education to every corner of the state this fall. Now is the time to make a real difference in the lives of Missouri’s children."

Critics of the measure have been attacking Raise Your Hand for Kids for months over controversial provisions, including one that would allow the new income raised to go to private or parochial schools.

Some of the original backers, including some public-education groups, have withdrawn their support— in part because of concern that RJ Reynolds has provided most of the money for the campaign.

An opposition group called We Deserve Better said in a statement issued over the weekend, "We are grateful that the Missouri Court of Appeals raised its hand for voters and held that the ballot summary for Big Tobacco’s proposed amendment to our state’s Constitution is insufficient and unfair.

"Proponents of this flawed measure should have abandoned their court fight and accepted the ballot summary changes from the beginning. Instead, they knowingly circulated their flawed petition and misled voters. Having violated the law, Big Tobacco should now forfeit any place on Missouri’s ballot."

Tobacco company's support raises concerns

The ballot proposal calls for increasing Missouri’s tobacco tax— now the nation’s lowest, at 17 cents-a-pack —by 60 cents-a-pack to pay for the proposed programs. However, it also would add an additional 67 cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes produced by small tobacco companies that have eluded payments that the large tobacco companies have made to 46 states, including Missouri, as part of a 1998 court settlement.

That settlement stems from a suit by states against the larger tobacco companies to recover some of the governments’ tobacco-related health-care costs tied to their Medicaid programs, which provide health care to the poor.

Backers and RJ Reynolds have acknowledged that the tobacco giant had sought the provision in the initiative.

In recent weeks, the Raise Your Hand for Kids campaign also has retooled its operation and revamped the deployment of some key backers, such as longtime spokeswoman Linda Rallo.

The court fight doesn't affect a separate initiative proposal that calls for a 23-cent-a-pack hike in Missouri's tobacco tax to provide money for the state's transportation needs. That proposal is largely backed by the smaller tobacco companies that would be affected by the Raise Your Hand For Kids higher tax.

The Missouri secretary of state's office has yet to announce whether either tobacco-tax proposal has met the signature qualifications to get on the Nov. 8 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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