JEFFERSON CITY — For many Missouri residents, the checks came in comparatively small amounts — perhaps $20 or so. But over the course of several years, Missouri mailed nearly $1 billion of those special refund checks to millions of state taxpayers — all because of the anti-tax passion of one southwest Missouri man.
Mel Hancock authored a citizens' initiative limiting state revenues and local taxes that won voter approval in 1980 as an amendment to the state constitution. It helped propel him to a seat in Congress. And even after he left public office, the complex measure that had become known simply as "the Hancock Amendment" still was reaping rewards for taxpayers.
Hancock died early Sunday in his sleep at his home in Springfield, his wife, Alma, said Monday. He was 82.
A native of Cape Fair in rural southwest Missouri, Hancock founded the Taxpayer Survival Association in 1977 and used it as a springboard for the state constitutional amendment.
The Hancock Amendment sets a state revenue limit based on a percentage of the growth in the personal income of state residents. When revenues exceed the cap, tax refunds are triggered. From 1995 to 1999, the measure refunded $972 million to Missouri taxpayers. The median refund for each taxpayer was $21 when checks for the 1999 tax year were mailed out.
No refunds have occurred since then. But that's partly because the Hancock Amendment forced a change in public policy. In response to the swelling state revenues, Missouri legislators enacted a variety of new tax breaks in the mid-to-late 1990s. Then the economy dipped in the 2000s, leaving a large gap between the revenue ceiling imposed by the Hancock Amendment and Missouri's actual revenues.
The constitutional amendment that Hancock backed also prohibited the state from imposing unfunded mandates on local governments and required voter approval for local tax increases.
Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said the wording for Hancock's amendment was taken from a similar amendment made in Michigan at the time, the Hadley Amendment. Not enough attention was paid to make sure the wording fit correctly with the government in Missouri, he said.
"The concept of the Hancock Amendment is good — but I wish more attention had been paid to the drafting," Kelly said.
Missouri Republican Party Chairman David Cole said Monday that Hancock "put Missouri at the forefront of the populist revolt against excessive government spending."
Hancock was elected to Congress in 1988. There, he built a reputation as a fiscal and social conservative. He was one of 20 lawmakers who filed suit in 1992 attempting to stop a planned congressional pay raise. He attached an amendment to a bill in 1994 that would have cut federal funds to school districts that teach acceptance of homosexuality.
When he opted not to seek re-election in 1996, Hancock said he was fulfilling a self-imposed four-term limit that he had pledged to voters when he first ran.
Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, who succeeded Hancock in Congress, described him Monday as a "close friend and valued adviser for over 30 years."
"In everything he did, Mel was dedicated to creating better and less government," Blunt said.
But Hancock's desires did not always prevail. Frustrated that the state legislature approved a large tax increase to benefit education in 1993, Hancock backed another ballot initiative in 1994 that would have further tightened the revenue restrictions of his original constitutional amendment. Voters soundly defeated it after Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan warned it could have forced painful cuts to state services.
Decades later, Hancock's original constitutional amendment has continued to spur court challenges about how it should apply to specific local taxes, state revenues and laws.
"The Hancock Amendment really is a legacy — it has made Missouri a state that has relatively low taxes, and it's been a benefit particularly for local people to know their local governments can't raise taxes without voters getting a chance to approve them," said Marc Ellinger, a Republican attorney from Jefferson City who specializes in Hancock Amendment lawsuits.
Hancock is survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter. Funeral arrangements are pending.
— Missourian Reporter Connie McCollom contributed to this report.