Chris Kelly is not given to understatement. So when he says, as he did at Tuesday's campaign forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters, that Proposition B, the tobacco tax increase, "is the most important question on the state ballot" and "the way to the future for education and smoking cessation," you might be tempted to apply a substantial discount factor.
I wouldn't recommend that. Especially for voters here in a community that lives by education, in the heart of a revenue-starved state, he just might be right.
There are, of course, other important issues we have to resolve Nov. 6, to say nothing of the filling of Missouri's and the nation's top offices. The right-wingers who dominate our state legislature are trying to thwart a key provision of the Affordable Care Act and to politicize the judicial selection process. That means we have a ballot proposition and a constitutional amendment to oppose.
By contrast, Prop. B gives us a chance to do ourselves, our kids and our state some good. (That's also true of Boone County Prop. 1, which would impose a quarter-cent sales tax to create a Children's Services Fund to address the unmet needs of troubled and troubling children and teenagers.)
It's no news that Missouri has the lowest tobacco tax of any state. It's no surprise that the association representing service stations and convenience stores wants to keep it that way. Ron Leone, the lean and dapper spokesman for that group, was eloquent Tuesday in arguing its case.
Mr. Leone, whom Rep. Kelly claimed as a friend, seemed a smart and reasonable fellow — until I reminded myself that what he really supports is addiction and disease. His most plausible argument, that the new revenue for education might enable legislators to redirect some current funding, was, I thought, both true and irrelevant.
As Rep. Kelly rebutted, the education lobby in Jeff City is powerful enough to protect itself; and a few dollars redirected to mental health or another underfunded but important state service wouldn't be such a bad thing.
The proposition would impose a tax increase from 17 cents to 90 cents per pack of cigarettes. (The national average is $1.49.) The revenue from that higher tax is estimated to be between $283 million and $423 million a year. That revenue would be allocated: 50 percent to K-12 education, 30 percent to higher education and 20 percent to smoking cessation programs.
When the foundation formula for the public schools is short by millions and state support for the university is at historic lows, those numbers look awfully good.
The smoking cessation programs could be equally important. Rep. Kelly pointed out that research shows teenagers — the age when smoking typically becomes habit-forming – to be uniquely sensitive to price. A major increase would keep many from the addiction that has been shown to shorten lives and drive up medical costs.
True, he admitted in response to a question, in a perfect world the regressive tobacco tax would not be the best source of funding. But in the real world, and the real Missouri, it's the best source that has even a remote chance of adoption.
That chance is better this time than when a similar proposition was defeated in 2002 and 2006. A key difference this time, as the Kansas City Star reported Sunday, is that the big tobacco companies aren't pouring money into the campaign as they did before. That's because, Mr. Leone told the Star, the proposition would close a loophole that allows off-brand cigarettes to be sold for a lot less than major brands in Missouri.
"Big Tobacco" actually supports Prop. B, Mr. Leone said, "because it reduces their competition."
It would also reduce Missouri's attractiveness to bootleggers, who now buy here and sell in states where taxes and therefore retail prices are higher, Rep. Kelly said Tuesday.
If the tax increase passes, Missouri's tax would still be lower than in Illinois, Arkansas, Iowa and Oklahoma but higher than in Kansas.
More than 9,000 of our fellow Missourians die every year from diseases related to smoking. The American Cancer Society, the Missouri Budget Project and the state League of Women Voters all support Prop. B.
So should we all.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.