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Both campaign contribution limits and tobacco-tax proposals can go on November ballot

File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated Sept. 20 with high court ruling – Within the past 24 hours, the Missouri Supreme Court has taken actions guaranteeing that two disputed ballot initiatives will go before voters in November.

The most recent action came Tuesday afternoon, when the High Court unanimously ruled in favor of Amendment 3, which would raise Missouri's cigarette tax by as much as $1.27 a pack.  It would use the proceeds to fund early childhood education programs, and would bring in an estimated $300 million a year.

In an opinion written by judge Paul Wilson, the Supreme Court said there was no requirement to invalidate petition signatures just because the ballot title was later changed in an earlier appeals court decision.

Attorney Jane Dueker argued for Amendment 3 before the high court.

"We're 38th in the country on funding early childhood (education), and that is the wrong way for Missouri," Dueker said.  "Everyone agrees that our kids are our future, and we have to start investing in them now, and we cannot let another generation go by without giving our kids the best chance for a healthy future and for a bright future."

The Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association blasted the ruling.

"In our opinion, Big Tobacco disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of voters when they circulated their outrageous and unfair 747 percent tax increase ballot scheme that the court of appeals ruled was, quote, ‘unfair and insufficient,’ end quote," said MPCA executive director Ron Leone.  "We are confident the people will see through Big Tobacco's scam to place many troubling provisions in Missouri's Constitution and vote no on Nov. 8."

Much of the opposition centers on the fact that the initiative was funded by cigarette maker R.J. Reynolds. But Dueker said it's the words of the proposed amendment that matter.

"The words of the amendment mean we're going to get $300 million for our kids, and Big Tobacco and Little Tobacco are going to get whacked," she said. "I have no trouble putting my head on the pillow supporting that."

Amendment 2 will also remain on Missouri ballot

In addition, the Missouri Supreme Court late Monday declined to hear an appeal from opponents of a ballot initiative to restore campaign contribution limits.

The primary objection to Amendment 2 was language banning donations from state chartered banks and investor-owned utilities, such as Ameren and KCP&L.

Fred Sauer heads the group Returning Government to the People, which sponsors the amendment.

"We are gratified to learn that the Supreme Court of Missouri has denied the plaintiffs' meritless application for transfer," Sauer said in a written statement.  "The last two lawsuits were unanimously rejected by the Missouri Court of Appeals ... (and) have confirmed that the latest lawsuit is just as meritless as the other two.  Missouri voters have the right to choose whether to enact such commonsense limitations to eradicate the plague of corruption from Jefferson City."

Chuck Hatfield, representing the plaintiffs, responded via Twitter that they will await the outcome of the November election before deciding whether to pursue any further action.

"All options are post-election," he said.

(Updated Aug. 25 with ruling on campaign donations) – A Cole County judge has sided with supporters of a proposed constitutional amendment to restore campaign contribution limits.

The proposed Constitutional Amendment 2 contains language that would ban campaign donations from investor-owned utilities and state chartered banks. Circuit judge Patricia Joyce ruled Thursday that that particular ban would not violate Missouri's constitution.

She also cited a clause that would eventually allow the provision to be severed from the rest of the amendment if necessary.

There has been no response yet from the ballot measure's legal team. But on Tuesday attorney Chuck Hatfield told reporters that they are not against campaign contribution limits, but that it's wrong to allow some corporations to donate to candidates while banning others from doing likewise.

Fred Sauer, the ballot initiative's sponsor, released the following statement:

"We are pleased that the Circuit Court of Cole County has rejected these meritless claims.  This lawsuit is the third lawsuit filed by well-financed special interests since 2014 in attempt to keep the MCCRI away from Missouri voters.  The last two lawsuits, brought by notorious mega-donor Rex Sinquefield and his lobbyists, were unanimously rejected by the Missouri Court of Appeals.  As the Cole County Circuit Court ruled, the latest lawsuit is just as meritless as the other two.  The campaign contributions limitations of the MCCRI are closely modeled on federal campaign regulations and other state provisions, which the Courts have repeatedly upheld.  As the Circuit Court held, these contribution limits are plainly legal.  Missouri voters have the right to choose whether to enact such commonsense limitations to eradicate the plague of corruption from unlimited contributions."

It's also unknown at this point whether Judge Joyce's ruling will be appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court.

Original Aug. 23 story – A circuit judge has ruled in favor of a ballot proposal that would increase Missouri’s tobacco tax by as much as $1.27 for a pack of cigarettes.  Barring a successful appeal, the judge’s action appears to clear the way for the proposal to go onto the November ballot.

Cole County Judge Jon Beetem disagreed with the arguments of opponents, who questioned the proposal’s wording and Secretary of State Jason Kander’s certification of the signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot.

A coalition called Raised Your Hand for Kids crafted the ballot proposal, known as Amendment 3.  The tax increase would raise an estimated $300 million a year, when fully phased in, with the money dedicated to education and health programs for children.

Some critics object to the proposal’s provisions that would allow some of the money to go to private or parochial schools.

The opponents include some small tobacco companies who support a rival tobacco tax hike that would increase the state’s tax by 23 cents a pack, with the money earmarked for transportation projects.

Raise Your Hand for Kids’ spokeswoman Jane Dueker, a lawyer, praised the judge’s ruling.

“Today’s decision affirms the will of the more than 200,000 Missourians who signed petitions supporting ‘Yes on 3 for Kids’ and know that we must start investing in Missouri kids by expanding early childhood education. Missouri currently lags its neighbors and the nation in providing early childhood education, despite the fact that early childhood education is a proven way to reduce crime, grow the economy, and save taxpayer dollars.

“Now is the time for the cheap cigarette companies, who care more about their profit margins than Missouri kids, to drop their frivolous lawsuits,” Dueker added.

Kander also lauded the court’s decision: “As the court agreed, the intent of the law is not to disenfranchise Missourians who have legally signed a petition, which is why this petition should remain on the ballot so voters can decide on its merits. We will continue working every day to ensure fairness and integrity in all aspects of the election process.”

But opponents say they will continue their court fight. Lead lawyer Chuck Hatfield said, “We have always planned to argue this matter to the court of appeals. The issue of whether to count signatures gathered using a deceptive ballot title is one that has not been addressed by the courts before and so an appellate decision makes sense.

"We believe the law is clear that signatures cannot be counted in this case. We also believe the measure is unconstitutional and that the courts may consider that issue at this stage.”

Campaign contribution limits

Meanwhile, another Cole County judge is weighing a challenge to a proposed constitutional amendment to restore campaign contribution limits in Missouri.

Constitutional Amendment 2, if passed by voters would:

  • Establish limits on campaign contributions by individuals or entities to political parties, political committees, or committees to elect candidates for state or judicial office
  • Prohibit individuals and entities from intentionally concealing the source of such contributions
  • Require corporations or labor organizations to meet certain requirements before they could make such contributions
  • Provide a complaint process and penalties for any violations of this amendment

It's the third provision that's at issue in the lawsuit, heard Tuesday before circuit judge Patricia Joyce.
Chuck Hatfield, the lead attorney opposing the Raise Your Hand for Kids initiative, is also representing the plaintiffs challenging Constitutional Amendment 2. They are the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives and Legends Bank of Missouri. He argues that his clients would be barred from donating to ANY political candidate under the proposal.

“What this constitutional amendment does is it allows investor-owned utilities, such as Ameren (and Kansas City Power and Light), to contribute to PACs, but it prohibits Missouri electric cooperatives, such as my client, from contributing to PACs,” Hatfield said.  “We have a provision here that discriminates and says my clients may not contribute to their own PAC that they have established, while investor-owned utilities, similarly situated in the exact same circumstances, may contribute.”

Attorney David Sauer disagreed.

"(Hatfield) is picking on these very, very tiny points of application, minuscule subsets," Sauer told Judge Joyce, "and saying 'aha ... I think I've identified a potential constitutional problem here, so the voters can't vote on any of this.'"

He also argued that the ballot initiative would not prevent the plaintiffs from making campaign contributions.

"This initiative petition imposes no limits on any entity's ability to make independent expenditures," Sauer said. "Mr. Hatfield's clients will be able to make unfettered independent expenditures in connection to Missouri elections if this thing passes. ... They will all be allowed, if they wish, to set up affiliated PACs and encourage contributions to those PACs."

Sauer, the attorney, is the son of Fred Sauer, a former Republican candidate for Missouri governor who's financing the initiative.

A ruling is expected later this week, most likely by Thursday.

Follow Jo Mannies and Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @jmannies  @MarshallGReport

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.