By DAVID A. LIEB
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - For many Missouri residents, the checks came in comparatively small amounts - perhaps $20 or so. But over the course of several years, Missouri mailed nearly $1 billion of those special refund checks to millions of state taxpayers - all because of the anti-tax passion of one southwest Missouri man.
Mel Hancock authored a citizens' initiative limiting state revenues and local taxes that won voter approval in 1980 as an amendment to the state constitution. It helped propel him to a seat in Congress. And even after he left public office, the complex measure that had become known simply as "the Hancock Amendment" still was reaping rewards for taxpayers.
Hancock died early Sunday in his sleep at his home in Springfield, his wife, Alma, said Monday. He was 82.
A native of Cape Fair in rural southwest Missouri, Hancock graduated from what is now Missouri State University in Springfield and served as an officer in the U.S. Air Force before working in the insurance business. In 1969, he co-founded the bank security firm Federal Protection Inc. Hancock then delved into politics. He founded The Taxpayer Survival Association in 1977 and used it as a springboard for the constitutional amendment.
The Hancock Amendment sets a state revenue limit based on a percentage of the growth in the personal income of state residents. When revenues exceed the cap, tax refunds are triggered - something that occurred regularly during the economic boom of 1995-1999. During that time, the measure resulted in $972 million refunds to Missouri taxpayers. When the checks for the 1999 tax year were mailed out in late 2000, the median refund for each taxpayer was $21.
No refunds have occurred since then. But that's partly because the Hancock Amendment forced a change in public policy. In response to the swelling state revenues, Missouri legislators enacted a variety of new tax breaks in the mid-to-late 1990s. Then the economy dipped in the 2000s, leaving a large gap between revenue ceiling imposed by the Hancock Amendment and Missouri's actual revenues.
Asked about the impending tax refunds in 1998 as a result of his constitutional amendment, Hancock expressed a mixture of satisfaction and skepticism of government. "If they didn't have to send it back because of the constitution, they wouldn't have ever done it," Hancock said.
The constitutional amendment that Hancock backed also prohibited the state from imposing unfunded mandates on local governments and required voter approval for local tax increases.
Missouri Republican Party Chairman David Cole said Monday that Hancock "put Missouri at the forefront of the populist revolt against excessive government spending."
"There is a quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson: "One man with courage is a majority.' Mel's life is a testament to the truth of this saying and proof that ordinary citizens can have a significant and lasting impact on their state and their nation," Cole said.
The transition from grass-roots political activist to public official did not come without setbacks for Hancock. He lost a 1982 GOP primary for U.S. Senate to incumbent John Danforth and lost the 1984 election for lieutenant governor to Democrat Harriett Woods. He finally won office in 1988, prevailing in a four-way Republican primary and then defeating Democrat Max Bacon to with an open seat in Missouri's 7th Congressional District.
In Congress, Hancock built a reputation as a fiscal and social conservative. He was one of 20 lawmakers who filed suit in 1992 attempting to stop a planned congressional pay raise. He attached an amendment to a bill in 1994 that would have cut federal funds to school districts that teach acceptance of homosexuality. In 1995, Hancock received a perfect 100 score from the American Conservative Union - a step better than the 99 average he had compiled from 1989 to 1994.
When he opted not to seek re-election in 1996, Hancock said he was fulfilling a self-imposed four-term limit that he had pledged to voters when he first ran.
Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, who succeeded Hancock in Congress, described him Monday as a "close friend and valued advisor for over 30 years."
"In everything he did, Mel was dedicated to creating better and less government," Blunt said.
But Hancock's desires did not always prevail. Frustrated that the state Legislature approved a large tax increase to benefit education in 1993, Hancock backed another ballot initiative in 1994 that would have further tightened the revenue restrictions of his original constitutional amendment. Voters soundly defeated it after Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan warned it could have forced painful cuts to state services. Carnahan then pushed his own tax-limitation amendment in 1996, which voters overwhelmingly passed despite Hancock's derision of it as "Amendment Fraud." Hancock considered - but opted against - challenging Carnahan in the 1996 gubernatorial elections.
Decades later, Hancock's original constitutional amendment has continued to spur court challenges about how it should apply to specific local taxes, state revenues and laws.
"The Hancock Amendment really is a legacy - it has made Missouri a state that has relatively low taxes, and it's been a benefit particularly for local people to know their local governments can't raise taxes without voters getting a chance to approve them," said Marc Ellinger, a Republican attorney from Jefferson City who specializes in Hancock Amendment lawsuits.
Besides his wife, Hancock is survived by two sons and a daughter. Funeral arrangements are pending.