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Let Smokers Pay for Roads

Missouri has come up with a unique way to pay for roads, and it's even a user fee, though it bears no direct relation to road users other than for those driving to the store to buy their cigarettes. So much for using the tax to address public health.
May 26, 2016, 7am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Nils Versemann

"The Missouri Marketers and Convenience Store Association [sic] has collected enough signatures to ask voters if the state’s cigarette tax should be increased by 23 cents per pack to help pay for transportation," writes Alisa Nelson for Missourinet. "Missouri’s cigarette tax is the lowest in the nation, at 17 cents per pack."

The measure will appear on the November 8 ballot. Voters will choose from two versions according to Ballotpedia:

Version 79 would dedicate the revenue to the state general revenue fund and version 80 would require revenue to be used exclusively for transportation infrastructure projects.

The state gas tax may not be the lowest, but at 17.3 cents per gallon, only Oklahoma, South Carolina, New Jersey and Alaska, in that order, had lower gas taxes as of April 16, according to the American Petroleum Institute [PDF]. The average state gas tax, including fees, is 29.64 cents per gallon per API. Recent efforts to increase it in Missouri are noted below.

Interestingly, the American Cancer Society and other public health advocates are not opposing the measure because of where the revenue will be directed, but because the tax is too small to make a difference to deter smoking by youths, according to a joint statement in opposition to the Missouri 23 Cent Cigarette Tax Initiative (2016) per Ballotpedia:

It is alarming and deceitful for the tobacco industry to support two insufficient tobacco tax proposals in our state under the guise of concern about education and transportation funding. Small increases to the tobacco tax – like the proposals being considered – will generate new revenue, but will not keep kids from becoming addicted to cigarettes or help adults quit.

Last month, the state Senate approved a 5.9 cents per gallon gas tax ballot measure that would have gone to the voters in November, but inexplicably this month, the "House leadership never called the bill for a vote, leaving the state with a continuing transportation funding crisis," wrote Doug Wilson for the Herald-Whig. The legislative session ended May 13.

Missouri's transportation funding crisis was described in January and unsuccessful attempts at increasing transportation funding were chronicled last July:

  • May, 2014: Legislature votes to put transportation sales tax measure on ballot after overriding Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of a cut to the state income tax. Reducing the income tax while raising the sales tax may have influenced the election outcome
  • August 5, 2014: Voters reject .75 percent transportation sales tax measure by 59 percent.
  • April 2015: Legislation proposed to raise gas tax by six cents over three years.
  • April 2015: Bill is changed to two cents for one year, then "Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard said that he doesn't want to waste more time on the bill." 

There is something both insidious and ingenious in asking less than 20 percent* of the population to pay for the transportation needs for everyone. Revenue should be directed towards campaigns to stop smoking, the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. and internationally, and toward health care costs caused by tobacco addiction.

*17.5% - 20.4% of population in 2014 in Missouri smoked per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hat tip to AASHTO Daily Transportation Update

Full Story:
Published on Tuesday, May 24, 2016 in Missourinet
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