Our Opinion: Non-compete clause added to cigarette tax

Here’s a novel idea for legislating: a non-compete clause for a tax hike.

An incremental cigarette tax hike that would top out at an additional 13 cents a pack in 2019 has been proposed. Coupled with the existing 17-cent tax, the eventual total would be a 30-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes.

The tax hike has the blessing of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Association, which has opposed previous efforts to raise the tax by larger amounts.

Ron Leone, the association’s executive director who helped write the bill, said: “We believe the voters were saying no to the outrageous and unfair tax increases contained in those three initiative petitions.”

Ballot issues previously rejected by voters include a 55-cent increase in 2002, an 80-cent increase in 2006 and a 73-cent increase last year.

The lesser increase in the proposed law is accompanied by a mechanism to deter initiative petition efforts seeking larger tax increases.

The deterrent provision rescinds the legislative tax hike if an initiative petition seeking a larger tax is placed on ballot.

Note cancellation of tax hike is triggered not by voter approval of a larger tax hike, but merely by ballot placement.

State Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue and sponsor of the bill, defended the provision, which has been characterized as a “poison pill.”

Lamping said: “The rationale is to keep the tax policy in the hands of the General Assembly. The General Assembly would decide if they’re going to raise the sales tax or the income tax or cigarette tax or a transportation tax.”

The problem with that attitude, which critics might call imperious, is it conflicts with the state Constitution.

The Constitution provides a mechanism for the people to gather signatures to place an initiative petition — including one to raise the cigarette tax — before voters statewide.

Lamping’s proposal does not — and probably can not — eliminate that constitutional right.

Does it, however, abridge that right?

Can an effort to increase a tax be linked to the punitive possibility of reducing the existing tax?

Jurists will decide the legal issues, but based on our reading of the Constitution, the provision certainly seems unfair.

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