JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously ruled that voters will get to decide whether to raise cigarette taxes to benefit early childhood programs.
The state's high court said the measure will stay on the Nov. 8 ballot, despite concerns raised by opponents that an earlier summary of the proposal was misleading.
At issue is a proposed constitutional amendment to phase in a 60-cent-per-pack increase of the state's lowest-in-the-nation tobacco taxes.
It also would raise fees by 67 cents a pack on cigarettes from tobacco companies that didn't participate in a 1998 legal settlement involving Missouri and 45 other states. Many of those comparatively smaller companies are selling cigarettes at lower prices in Missouri than the big tobacco companies that were part of the settlement.
Critics tried to knock the measure off the ballot after a lower court ruled an earlier summary of it was "unfair and insufficient" because it didn't note fees for some off-brand cigarettes would increase annually.
The description, called the official ballot title, had been given to people who signed petitions to get it on the ballot.
An appeals court ordered the language be changed, but that happened after the group Raise Your Hand for Kids, which is pushing the proposal, turned in signed petitions to the secretary of state's office. Signatures from at least 8 percent of legal voters in six of Missouri's eight congressional districts are needed to send a proposed constitutional amendment to the ballot.
Opponents, including little tobacco and convenience store owners, argued the revised language wasn't on the petitions that voters signed, so none of those signatures should count.
That would have killed the proposal this election cycle.
But Supreme Court judges agreed with supporters, who include cigarette giant Reynolds American Inc. In the ruling, the Supreme Court wrote that supporters collected signatures using what was the official ballot title at the time. They said that complies with state election laws, and Secretary of State Jason Kander's office was right to put the proposal on the ballot.
"The courts of this state must zealously guard the power of the initiative petition process that the people expressly reserved to themselves" in the Missouri Constitution, judges wrote. With that in mind, they said they didn't find any "clear and unambiguous" requirement in current laws that Kander toss out those signatures or that Raise Your Hand for Kids start over because the ballot title was later changed.
Opponents also had argued in court that the measure is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court said if voters approve it, then that would be the time to raise questions about the proposal's constitutionality.
Attorney Jane Dueker, who defended the proposal in court, said it's "a great day for the rights of citizens to propose changes in their laws." She said she expects the Supreme Court to be more reluctant in reviewing citizen ballot proposals before elections.
"They would never review a law before it was passed or signed by the governor, and I think they wanted to be more in line with that," Dueker said.
Ron Leone, executive director of the opposing Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, in a statement said the group is "confident the people will see through Big Tobacco's scam to place many troubling provisions in Missouri's Constitution" and will vote the measure down.
The measure is one of two proposals to raise tobacco taxes in Missouri that now are on the Nov. 8 ballot.
The other is backed by tobacco retailers and the gas and convenience store group and would phase in a 23-cent-a-pack increase for highways. If enacted, it would automatically be repealed if other tobacco tax measures are certified for local or statewide ballots.
A lawsuit aimed at knocking it off the ballot is pending in circuit court.