JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Supreme Court cleared the way Tuesday for voters to potentially get a say on initiatives to raise tobacco taxes, increase the minimum wage and limit interest rates on payday loans.
The Supreme Court soundly rejected a variety of challenges to the summaries and financial estimates prepared by state officials for the ballot initiatives. The ruling means the proposals can appear on the Nov. 6 ballot if the secretary of state's office determines that supporters submitted enough petition signatures of registered voters.
In a unanimous ruling, the high court rejected claims that the ballot summaries prepared by the secretary of state's office and the financial estimates prepared by the state auditor's office were insufficient and unfair. With only one judge disagreeing, the Supreme Court also overturned a decision by a Cole County judge who had ruled that the state auditor lacked the constitutional authority to prepare financial estimates for ballot measures.
Auditor Tom Schweich, a Republican, praised the Supreme Court decision as a "complete victory" written in "strong and sweeping terms" to uphold his power to prepare financial summaries for initiatives.
Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, a Democrat, said the ruling defends the integrity of her office, which like Schweich's has been sued over virtually every initiative that stood a chance of making the ballot in recent years.
"We have always worked hard to give voters a fair and accurate description of the issues they're asked to vote on. The Missouri Supreme Court's decision affirms that," Carnahan said.
The tobacco initiative would raise Missouri's tax on cigarettes to 90 cents per pack from the current 17 cents, which is the lowest in the nation. State taxes on other tobacco products also would be increased.
Another initiative would raise the state's minimum wage to $8.25 an hour beginning in 2013, with an annual cost-of-living adjustment in subsequent years. If the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 an hour, rises above Missouri's minimum wage, then the ballot initiative would require Missouri to adopt the federal wage and begin applying the cost-of-living adjustment to that.
The third initiative at issue in Tuesday's ruling would limit the annual interest rate charged on certain short-term loans to 36 percent, a potentially significant decrease. In 2009, the Missouri Division of Finance determined that the average payday loan carried an average annual interest rate of 431 percent.
Payday loans give borrowers money in exchange for a check that is cashed on their next payday. Some other types of short-term loans are secured by vehicle titles or other means. The charges can mount because borrowers can roll the loans over several times.
Supporters of all three initiatives issued statements praising the ruling and said they looked forward to getting their issues before voters.
"This is a victory for Missouri consumers and the Missouri economy," Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia, said.
Still said she has pushed for four years for lower annual percentage rates, a higher tobacco tax and a higher minimum wage. "When the legislature refuses to act, we can go to the people, and the citizens can lead the leaders," she said.
But Tuesday's ruling may not end the litigation. The secretary of state faces an Aug. 7 deadline to determine whether the measures received enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, and additional lawsuits could challenge particular signatures. Missourians for Equal Credit Opportunity, which opposes the payday loan initiative, said Tuesday that it has "uncovered rampant signature improprieties," including duplicates and forgeries.
One of the chief issues resolved Tuesday was the constitutionality of a 1997 law directing the auditor to prepare financial estimates for initiatives. Earlier this year, Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem ruled it violated a section of the Missouri Constitution that forbids laws from imposing duties on the auditor that aren't related to supervising or auditing the collection and spending of public money.
The Supreme Court opinion, which was not attributed to any particular judge, said ballot initiatives clearly can affect the receipt and expenditure of public funds and the financial projections thus are related to the auditor's duties.
In a separate opinion, Judge Zel Fischer called that an "expansive interpretation" of the auditor's powers. Fischer said the initiatives should have been approved to appear on the ballot without the auditor's financial estimates.
Missourian reporter Jasmin James contributed to this report.