After months of mulling over the details, an unlikely coalition of convenience stores, gas stations and low-cost cigarette companies has hit the streets to collect signatures for a proposed 23-cent-a-pack hike in Missouri’s tobacco tax – now the nation’s lowest.
Under the initiative petition that the group began circulating this week, the estimated $100 million a year that the higher tax would raise would be designated for the state’s transportation needs.
When the coalition announced its general plan last summer, it also was considering a proposal that would simply have added the $100 million to the state’s general revenue.
But after polling, it was “a no-brainer’’ that the proposal linking the tax hike to transportation had stronger support among likely voters, said Ronald J. Leone, executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association.
The association led the successful drives to defeat three larger proposed tobacco-tax hikes that were placed on Missouri’s ballots in 2002, 2006 and 2012. But Leone says his group has always been amenable to a smaller increase.
The initiative petition that it now supports would phase in the 23-cent-per-pack tax increase by 2021. Missouri's tobacco tax is currently 17-cents for a pack of cigarettes. Nationally, the average state tobacco tax is well over $1 a pack. That's on top of the federal tobacco tax of $1.01 per pack.
Leone called the proposed hike ““reasonable, but fair, and still substantial.”
“We’ll do whatever it takes to get it in the ballot,’’ he added.
The coalition has hired a signature-collection firm, and expects it will cost roughly $700,000 to gather the signatures. Roughly 120,000 will be needed, but Leone says the coalition wants to collect far more as “a cushion.”
The signatures must be turned in to the Missouri secretary of state’s office by May 8.
Other groups have filed initiative petitions to increase the tobacco tax even more. But it’s unclear which ones, if any, will actually collect signatures. Some supporters of tobacco-tax increases are paying close attention to Leone’s coalition, because of its track record in successfully killing off previous tobacco-tax hikes that made the ballot.