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Rival tobacco tax proposals focus all their energies on Missouri's Amendment 3

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After leading the fight to get the proposed tobacco tax increase known as Proposition A on the ballot, Ron Leone is forsaking that proposal so he can focus on defeating its rival.

“We’ve had to leave the fate of Proposition A to the gods,” said Leone, executive director of Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Stores. “Our entire focus of our resources and our effort has been to defeat Amendment 3.”

Amendment 3 would increase Missouri’s cigarette tax by as much as $1.27 a pack, to provide more money for early childhood education and health programs. Spokeswoman Jane Dueker says it would raise $300 million a year.

“This is the biggest chance we have to make the biggest investment we’ve done for our kids in decades,” said Dueker. She cites figures showing that the states surrounding Missouri all spend much more on early childhood education.

But Washington University and some education groups oppose the proposal, because of provisions that appear to bar spending on stem-cell research and would allow some of the money to go to private or parochial schools.

Dueker says the concerns are overblown and reflect the desire of special interests to get a piece of the income that Amendment 3 would raise. She emphasizes that the measure is worded to make sure that the $300 million “cannot be diverted for any other purpose.”

But Leone’s group is taking aim at Amendment 3 primarily because the parent company of the RJ Reynolds tobacco company has donated more than $12 million to the amendment’s campaign. That’s the bulk of the campaign’s money.

“Big tobacco does not care about children,’’ Leone said. “Big tobacco does not care about early childhood education. Big tobacco is supporting Amendment 3 because it makes Big Tobacco even bigger.”

Targeting the 'loophole'

Leone is referring to the Amendment 3 provision that would impose a 67-cents-a-pack hike on low-cost cigarettes produced by small tobacco companies. That would be in addition to the 60-cents-a-pack hike imposed on all cigarettes.

Last spring, a spokeswoman said the low-cost provision was added at the suggestion of RJ Reynolds, which began donating large sums to help get Amendment 3 on the ballot.

The 67-cent portion is intended to close a “loophole’’ that has allowed small tobacco companies to avoid the payments that the large tobacco companies have made to 46 states, including Missouri, as part of a 1998 court settlement. That settlement was reached in a suit the states had filed against the large tobacco companies to recover some of state governments’  tobacco-related health-care costs.

Missouri is the only state that has not closed the “loophole,’’ one of the reasons the state has become a mecca for low-cost cigarettes. Missouri also has by far the nation’s lowest cigarette tax, at 17 cents a pack.

Back to Proposition A

Leone and the Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Stores successfully killed off tobacco tax increase proposals in 2002, 2006 and 2012. 

But this year, he announced that the group recognized that the 17-cent-a-pack tax couldn’t exist forever and decided to craft Proposition A.

Proposition A would raise the tobacco tax by 23 cents a pack, with the money raised earmarked for transportation improvements.

Backers have raised at least $5.3 million — but Leone says it’s all being spent to oppose Amendment 3.

“We are much more concerned about defeating Amendment 3 than we are about passing Proposition A,’’ Leone said.

Proposition A includes language that Dueker calls “a poison pill:” The measure would automatically be repealed if any future tobacco tax hike proposals – state or local – are put on the ballot.

Leone said that clause doesn’t apply to the current battle between Proposition A and Amendment 3. If voters happen to approve both measures, it may be up to the courts to decide which goes into effect — or whether they both do.

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.