After helping block three statewide votes over the last decade,the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association now has helped write a proposed cigarettes-only tax increase it can - and will - support.
"The voters were not saying no to any and all cigarette tax increases," Ron Leone, the association's executive director, told the Senate's Ways and Means Committee Thursday morning.
"We believe the voters were saying no to the outrageous and unfair tax increases contained in those three initiative petitions."
Missouri currently imposes a 17 cents per-pack tax on cigarettes. It's the lowest tax in the nation - 13 cents less per pack than Virginia's tax.
In 2002, Missouri voters defeated a proposed 55 cents-per-pack hike by a 1.7 percent margin.
In 2006, a constitutional amendment proposal was rejected by a 2.83 percent margin.
And last fall's proposition to raise the excise tax by 73 cents per pack was blocked by a 1.6 percent margin of the statewide vote.
State Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, proposes raising the state's excise tax by 13 cents, which then would match Virginia's next-to-last 30 cents.
"This is (an) attempt to raise cigarette taxes in a politically palatable way," Lamping told the committee. "The increase in cigarette tax is offset by eliminating (some income) tax brackets."
Last year, Lamping proposed a tax increase to 36 cents a pack from the current 17 cents.
But his new proposal raises the tax by only 13 cents, effective in January 2019 - and it phases in the proposed increase, with a five-cent hike beginning Jan. 1, 2015; another nickel beginning Jan. 1, 1917; and the final three cents beginning Jan. 1, 2019.
Leone said his association opposed the previous increases because they were too big.
The new proposal "maintains the competitive tax advantage we have over our eight border states," he explained, "which is, really, the only critical issue that I've dealt with in those three initiative petitions."
He noted supporters of the three previous ballot issues would cite high taxes around the country and say Missouri's proposed increase still wouldn't get close to the high-tax states.
But, Leone added, "The only thing I care about is the ability for your constituent small businesses to continue to compete with their market area - which is the eight border states."
Misty Snodgrass, the American Cancer Society's Missouri government relations director, helped lead last fall's campaign and led Thursday's opposition to the bill "for many reasons."
"First and foremost," she said, "this will not reduce smoking rates; it will not save the amount of money that we spend on Medicaid ... because there won't be a reduction in usage."
She also objected to a provision in the bill that would cancel the tax increase if an initiative petition seeking an even higher tax is placed on the ballot for a statewide vote.
"That is taking the will directly out of the voters' hands, and any organizations that would be in support of increasing the tobacco tax," Snodgrass said.
But Leone and Lamping defended the "poison pill" provision in the new proposal, saying it's an important part of the cigarette tax increase plan.
If a group wanted to raise the tax higher than lawmakers had approved, Lamping said, "They would be giving up revenue that already exists."
He added: "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.
"It would not be by ballot initiative."