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GEORGE KENNEDY: GOP preventing Rep. Mary Still's tobacco tax, other proposals

Thursday, February 9, 2012 | 5:17 p.m. CST; updated 9:23 a.m. CST, Friday, February 10, 2012

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is condemned to push a boulder up a steep hill. The boulder slides back down, and the poor guy has to start over.

Rep. Mary Still's self-imposed challenges make that legend look like a walk in the park.

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She's pushing at least three legislative boulders up a hill that's been greased by the Republican majorities in both houses. Like Sisyphus, she's no quitter. Unlike him, she’s also running for the state Senate.

Mary's biggest metaphorical boulder is her proposal to increase Missouri's lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax. In a rational world, this would be a no-brainer. The revenue — estimated at $396 million a year — would come close to eliminating the budget shortfall that has led Gov. Jay Nixon to slash funding for higher education by 15 percent. As a bonus, research shows that the extra cost of a pack would discourage smoking, especially among the young.

Of course, ideology trumps rationality. The Republican majority in the legislature and our Democratic governor are in agreement that no tax shall be raised on anything for any purpose. Neither is likely to be swayed by the fact that an increase of 72 cents a pack would leave Missouri below our neighboring states and far from the national average of $1.46.

The same ideology probably dooms her proposal that Missouri join an interstate compact to tax Internet sales. Mary's bill is called the Main Street Protection Act. Estimated revenue: $20 million per year. Estimated chance of passage: Slim.

That's also the likelihood that her proposed limit on payday loan interest will pass. You'll recall that in the last session, Mary's bill was assigned to a committee chaired by a former payday lender. To get past that obstacle, the Rev. Jim Bryan is heading an initiative campaign to cap interest at 36 percent. Maybe citizens can overcome this special interest. You can bet the legislature won't.

Mary put her journalism degree to work in an opinion piece that ran last month in the Columbia Daily Tribune. She made a strong argument for her tax proposals and took a swipe at Kurt Schaefer, whose Senate seat she seeks.

She even called out Chris Kelly, who was the only Democrat in the House to join the Republicans in passing a constitutional amendment limiting growth in the state budget. No doubt the Senate will follow suit. At least we voters will get a chance to weigh in on that one.

She accurately calls it a "shortsighted Hancock-like proposal."

As you can tell by now, I'm a fan. It was not always thus. When Mary ran the university's news bureau and I was in the Missourian newsroom, we had a few arguments. I don't recall ever winning one. She was relentless in protecting the institution's secrets.

That stubbornness has become a virtue in the legislature.  

I caught her on the way to a meeting last week and asked just what she really hopes to accomplish in the face of overpowering Republican opposition.

In her Arkansas drawl that sounds misleadingly soft, she made clear that she plans to persevere. These issues, she said, "are bipartisan everywhere in the state except Jefferson City."

Her Republican colleagues, she said, "are wrong on these issues, and they know it."

She admitted she may not prevail, but "I make it uncomfortable for them."

She's comfortable with that. I’m just glad we’re on the same side now.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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Comments

Ellis Smith February 10, 2012 | 6:51 a.m.

Given the low tax on cigarettes here in Missouri and the acknowledged fact that smoking them represents a health hazard, raising the state tax seems a reasonable thing to do. That's easy for me to say, because I stopped smoking cigarettes in 1978.

George, I'm confused. Don't we still have elections in Missouri for members of our state legislature? So why have we, who for years had Democrats in control of both legislative bodies, gone over to Republicans? And having done that, and having observed what an awful group of people those Republicans are, failed to restore Democrats to the majority?

It also looks to some of us like we presently have a governor who is a Republican, a closet Republican.

One of our many Missouri mysteries.

(Report Comment)
Gerald Shelnutt February 10, 2012 | 9:26 a.m.

To raise a tax, any tax just because we have the lowest one in the country is a poor excuse to raise a tax but that is one of the strange things about a Missouri democrat or any democrat for that matter.

Learn to live on what you have then perhaps we will see about a raise.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin February 10, 2012 | 12:17 p.m.

This looks like more of the same: proposals that take aim at average folks, no matter how good they sound on the surface.

Taxing Internet sales to protect "Main Street?"

How about lowering taxes on Main Street to protect Main Street?

How about closing the gaping loophole in property tax laws so that millionaire and billionaire developers start paying their fair share?

I know both those ideas sound like heresy around here, but good heavens: every time I've turned around in this community over the past 15 years, some government agency has a new proposal to tax Main Street's sales, the latest connected to a truly questionable move to expand the perennially moribund Columbia Regional Airport.

Or they have a proposal to raise property taxes on average folks, while letting millionaires continue dodging them.

And another tobacco tax? Who smokes: average folks. And who takes taxes on vices -- like gambling and smoking -- and wastes them? Statehouse politicians.

I remember a big push for taxes on riverboat gaming that were supposed to save public school budgets. To this day, I'm repeatedly asked "where did all that money go?"

What's more, taxes on addictive vices like smoking don't decrease demand, contrary to popular misconception. They are targeted for taxes precisely for this reason.

Smokes have what's called an "inelastic demand curve." You can raise taxes and prices on them all you want, and you will not decrease the quantity demanded.

Finally, this proposal to cap interest rates on pay day lenders. I remember my Econ prof -- a widely-published microeconomics guru at the University of Washington -- warning us students about ideas like this that ignore the so-called "risk premium."

"Politicians love to point out whose gouging whom, but they fail to define the word 'gouge' in any meaningful way," he noted.

High interest rates for payday loans are not necessarily gouging. Rather, they reflect the tremendous risks of lending that way -- the risk premium. Artificially force those rates down, and you will force those businesses to close.

That may be the ultimate goal, but again -- I don't know how this benefits average folks. In fact, it removes yet one more financial option for them.

Instead, why not work on state laws that reduce utility costs, a main reason people seek pay day loans?

Why not work on more ways to support small businesses, the group that employs the most people?

Why keep approving increase after increase from Ameren and gang?

Taxing smokes and Internet sales won't help average people, and neither will closing payday lenders.

(Report Comment)
Ken Geringer February 10, 2012 | 5:47 p.m.

If the cost to the state of cigarette smoking in Missouri can be determined, then an increase in the tobacco tax to cover this expense, if needed, seems like one of those no brainers to me.

Booze and pot too.

Well, why not?

(Report Comment)

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