COLUMBIA — State Rep. Mary Still caused quite a stir when she spoke before the Columbia Chamber of Commerce’s Education Committee on Tuesday morning.
Committee members invited Still, D-Columbia, to speak about the state of education funding. Instead, she used the opportunity to stump for an increase in the state's cigarette tax and for a new tax on Internet sales. Chamber members viewed her remarks as more akin to a campaign stump speech.
Still, who represents the 25th District in the Missouri House, said she will run against incumbent state Sen. Kurt Schaefer,* R-Columbia, in the new 19th District next year.
From the beginning of her speech, Still was critical of the Republican-led legislature for cutting corporate taxes, saying that was one reason the state struggles to spend enough on education.
"I'm concerned that our policies in Jefferson City — in the legislature — are taking us in the wrong direction," she began.
In seeking solutions to the problem of education funding, she said, a hike in the cigarette tax would be "low-hanging fruit."
"We are the lowest in the country," Still said of Missouri's 17-cent-a-pack tax on smokes. She noted that two years ago, South Carolina — a leading tobacco producer — raised its tax rate by 50 cents a pack.
"We can double our tax, and we'd be the second-lowest in the country," she said. Only Virginia's 30-cent tax would be lower.
Still proposed raising the tax by 73 cents to 90 cents per pack, a move she estimates would raise $283 million annually. She also argued that smoking creates $600 million in annual health care costs and research shows higher cigarette prices deter young adults from picking up the habit.
Still also favors taxing Internet sales. Because there is no federal sales tax, online retailers pay state sales taxes only when they have warehouses or other property in the state where a customer lives.
"Missouri businesses are at about a 6 to 9 percent disadvantage because of that," Still said. She supports legislation known as the Missouri Main Street Fairness Act that would add Missouri to a 24-state compact establishing uniform tax rates for products purchased over the Internet.
"By simply joining the compact, we get $20 million annually," Still said, noting that U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., supports similar federal legislation.
Still took questions for about five minutes. One touched on her opposition to the so-called "fair tax," a proposal that would replace the state's income tax with higher sales taxes. Still said that would raise taxes on the working class and the poor.
"I call it an unfair tax because it'd be a huge tax on everyone in this room," Still said to laughter from the audience.
After Still left the meeting, it didn’t take long for member Terry Smith, dean of academic affairs at Columbia College, to voice his displeasure at her speech. Smith described himself as a friend of Still and her husband, Russell Still, but said he felt compelled to speak up.
"This is an inappropriate forum for a campaign speech," Smith said, suggesting Schaefer should have been invited to provide balance.
Committee co-chair Cheri Ghan said Schaefer, an attorney, had been scheduled to speak, too, but he had to cancel so he could make a court appointment.
In an interview after the committee adjourned, Ghan also expressed dismay at Still's tone. "We were not expecting a political speech. We were just looking for straight information about (education) funding."
Reached by phone later in the day, Still expressed regret that her speech had been taken as political.
"I'm sorry to hear that," she said. "I did not even think about that."
Still said that she was simply offering her thoughts on the challenges facing education in the state.
"I can't think of anything I talked about that could be considered overly political," Still said, adding that every proposal she floated had bipartisan support.