KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The push to raise Missouri's lowest-in-the-nation tobacco tax may already be snuffed out just a week into the 2012 legislative session.
Despite a push by health advocates and a looming, $750 million budget shortfall, one lawmaker says that both the state's Republican legislative leadership and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon don't want to raise any taxes because they fear it would harm the fragile economy.
Right now, Missouri has the lowest cigarette tax in the nation at 17 cents a pack.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan approved for circulation by representatives of the American Cancer Society a petition that would raise the tax by more than 70 cents per pack of cigarettes. It is one of several such petitions now being circulated for possible inclusion on the November statewide ballot. Petition supporters have until May to gather 90,000 signatures – an amount equal to 5 percent of registered voters in six of the state's nine congressional districts.
Supporters say an increased tobacco tax could deter people from taking up smoking and help the state plug its budget hole.
However, not everyone agrees with the notion.
"As a matter of fiscal policy, I would see it nothing more than a Band Aid," said Rep. Ryan Silvey, a Republican from Kansas City who chairs the House Budget Committee. "Statistically, those who smoke are lower-income people, so it's probably the most regressive that you could ever pass, because lower-income people are the ones who are going to have to approve it."
Scott Holste, a spokesman for Gov. Nixon, said "The governor has said that he's going to work to hold the line on taxes, even with the budget challenges. As he's had to do every year, he'll propose a budget that has the state of Missouri live within its means. There will have to be cuts, since this year we won't have the same source of federal funding as before to put into the budget."