Plainer Language

Every election cycle, the Secretary of State’s office offers a “plain language” explanation of ballot issues.  About a month out, newspapers publish each ballot issue in full with the short ballot title that is required.  Some of the ballot titles have been challenged in courts as incomplete, inaccurate, or unpleasing to the people who wrote the proposition and the ballot titles we will see in the polling places represent the results of the challenges that were made.  Today we offer a “plainer language” explanation of each issue.  And we are not, as is the case with the official ballot titles, restricted in the number of words we will use for each.

There are a few things to note about these propositions.  Except for Constitutional Amendment #1, an issue that is mandated by the Missouri Constitution to be voted on every ten years, and photo voter ID—all of the other issues are on the ballot because the legislature has not done anything about them.

Second, it’s a good idea to check https://ballotpedia.org/Missouri_2016_ballot_measures to get all kinds of information about these issues including information about who is spending money to get them on the ballot and get you to approve them and other editorial comments that offer perspectives on what the proposals REALLY mean.

There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors on the ballot in November.

Constitutional Amendment #1

This continues for another ten years the 1/10-cent sales tax, half of which goes for soil and water conservation and the other half for state parks and historic sites.  About three-fourths of the funding for Missouri’s 87 state parks and historic sites comes from this tax, which was enacted in 1984 at a time when Missouri had one of the worst soil erosion records in the nation. Now, Missouri has one of the best.

Constitutional Amendment #2

This amendment is so long that it takes more than an entire newspaper page filled with small type to print all of it. Missourians have a chance to re-impose limits on the amounts individuals can give to political campaigns.  Voters went for the idea by 74 percent in 1994.  The legislature threw out the limits in 2008, claiming better reporting would be sufficient. “Better reporting” is a joke, particularly with the rise of the non-profit political action committees that let donors hide their big-bucks contributions.  To boil it down, this proposal—offered at this time of great public distrust of and disgust with government—would re-institute limits, saying no donor could give more than $2,600 to any candidate in an election cycle and no more than $25,000 to any political party.  People who do not hesitate to throw large amounts of money at candidates (who often claim government cannot solve problems by throwing money at them) are strongly opposed to this proposal and even if they lose the expected court challenge—should the plan pass—will quickly find loopholes that the legislature has a non-existent record of closing.   This petition campaign was backed by St. Louis millionaire Fred Sauer who at times has thrown large money around for political purposes but thinks St. Louis billionaire Rex Sinquefield is bent on—as Barbara Shelley wrote in Pitch last month—“destroying representative government in Missouri for his own interests.”  Sinquefield and the Humphreys family of Joplin have continued to write six and seven figure checks for favored causes and candidates, this not being one of them.

The legislature wanted absolutely nothing to do with this issue this year, hence the petition campaign that put the issue on the ballot.

TWO PROPOSED ISSUES WOULD RAISE THE TOBACCO TAX

Missouri’s tobacco tax of seventeen cents a pack is the nation’s lowest by far and Missourians—despite years and years of information that smoking is destructive of health—have refused to increase it. Missouri also is the only state that does not require small tobacco companies to make payments into the government tobacco tax settlement fund agreed to by the big companies eighteen years ago. Both of these proposals have agendas behind them, depending on the industry that is proposing them. One is a proposed constitutional amendment.  The other is a proposed law. Usually when there are competing ballot issues on the same topic, the one that gets the most votes prevails. This is different, however. It is generally held that the constitution is the supreme law and therefore its provisions are superior to statute. It is likely to take court review to sort out the situation if both pass. Both have features that have raised questions about motivation. Both were generated by special interests, not from any concerns by the general public.

An important ethical question for voters:  Is it proper for industry groups to, in effect, decide what taxes they will give the state permission to collect from them?  In effect, they’re taking power away from our elected representatives to set tax rates—assuming our elected representatives would have the courage to do anything but lower them. And they’re taking away from our elected representatives the authority to decide how state funds are to be spent. (Perhaps it could be said more accurately that our elected representatives have abdicated their responsibility to special interest groups.)

Constitutional Amendment #3 hikes the tax on Big Tobacco produces by sixty cents per pack of twenty smokes to 77-cents.  Little Tobacco’s taxes would go up by an additional 67 cents, up to a dollar-44 for its products. The income is earmarked for early childhood education. Don’t kid yourself.  This proposal is not about children. It’s about the tobacco industry. Earmarking the proceeds for early childhood education programs is intended to elicit public support but this is a temper tantrum by Big Tobacco. There’s a hook in this proposal that backers don’t talk about that we will talk about in a little bit. Amendment 3 is supported by big tobacco, which doesn’t like the fact that little tobacco doesn’t have to pay into the national tobacco settlement fund in Missouri.  So big tobacco’s proposal would increase state cigarette taxes on its products by sixty cents AND add an additional 67-cents a pack tax on small tobacco companies. R. J. Reynolds has pumped a lot of money into this proposition. The Raise Your Hand for Kids group that endorses this plan because its cause would reap a lot of money also likes it because it claims the cheap cigarettes entice young people to smoke. The convenience stores say this idea is less about education and more about slapping smaller competitors with a bigger tax. And convenience stores sell a lot of cigarettes made by those smaller competitors. They have their own self-serving proposal that we’ll talk about next.

While CA3 creates tens of millions of dollars earmarked for early childhood education, the mechanics of state budgeting does not guarantee that those programs will see a huge windfall.  Your observer has seen time after time that the legislature, which maintains authority to write the state budget, uses earmarked funds to replace substantial amounts of state general revenue funds going to programs and moves that general revenue funding to something else.  So passage of this proposal does not guarantee a lot of extra money for kids.  And that’s not all—

Here’s the hook—and it’s not education. Critics say wording buried in the proposition threatens to undermine the protections voters approved in 2006 for embryonic stem-cell research.  The wording says none of the money can be used for human cloning, embryonic stem cell research or abortions.  One legislator says anti-stem cell research advocates have hijacked this proposition.  Supporters deny the claims but admit the language was added because of “concerns” from the pro-life community.

Some critics think this amendment, if adopted, will wind up in the courts because, they argue, it violates the standard that amendments should be about a single issue.  They argue that inserting the pro-life language into it adds a second issue that makes the entire proposition unconstitutional.

Now let’s look at the second gas tax increase and the baggage it carries to the polling place.

Proposition A increases the tobacco tax to forty cents per pack in the next five years with proceeds going to transportation.  This one is backed by convenience store operators who historically have opposed tobacco taxes hikes—and fuel tax increases that would have provided more money for transportation. Despite that track record, the convenience stores association wants you to approve a tobacco tax increase for transportation.

And they don’t want anybody ever again to change the tax they are willing to accept with this proposal. Proceeds would go to transportation, i.e., highways along which convenience stores do a lot of business.  This proposition says convenience stores will allow a seventeen-cent increase. This is not a constitutional amendment, which is harder for the legislature to tinker with.  It is a proposed law which the legislature could repeal or change so that it could adjust the tax increase up or down.

There’s a severe penalty if the legislature ever wants to do that.  But it might not be that serious.

And that is the hook.  Or rather a poison pill.  The convenience stores propose to make this tax increase as permanent as it can be by saying the entire tobacco tax will be repealed if there is ever a proposal to increase or decrease the amount on any state or local ballot. In other words, the tax will drop to zero as soon as anything is certified for a vote, even in Left Puckyhuddle, Mo.,  and if the proposition fails, the tax stays at zero, not at the level this amendment could establish (section 6 of the proposal). The convenience stores are saying “Take it AND leave it.”

But if that is a hook, here is the counterpunch:  Because this is a proposed STATUTE, not an amendment, the legislature can remove the poison pill.  Remember when a petition regulating puppy mills was approved by voters in 2010 and almost immediately was changed by the legislature in 2011? The legislature felt the statute enacted by a petition led by the Humane Society of the United States was too costly and unfairly targeted legitimate dog-breeders.  Although the HSUS, criticized by legislators as being more interested in the politics of animal rights than in proper regulation of a legitimate industry, howled about it and threatened to run a new petition campaign, it never has.

Constitutional Amendment #4

Missouri’s real estate dealers do not want the state to impose a sales tax on their services.  Or any services—the person who fixes your sink drain, the person who connects or disconnects the cable to your house, the kid who changes your oil at the local sludge shop, the person who cuts or does your hair, etc. Realtors say they’ve watched some legislators and some influential donors to legislative campaigns—Rex Sinquefield in particular—who want to get rid of the state income tax and hike sales taxes to make up for the lost revenue, and they’re hoping this proposal will short-circuit that talk.  Critics such as the Missouri Municipal League say this amendment would “fix” a problem that does not exist and say the amendment would make it harder for cities to revise their local tax codes as society and the economy change. They also say they’re leery of the idea because of future court interpretations of it.

Constitutional Amendment #6

Photo voter-ID.  It asks voters to make it more difficult to vote.  It’s portrayed by supporters as a way to eliminate voter fraud at the polling place.  Critics say the measure is intended to disenfranchise thousands of voters, a large percentage of whom support the party that does not control the legislature. The New York Times has reported (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/17/us/some-republicans-acknowledge-leveraging-voter-id-laws-for-political-gain.html) that some Republicans have admitted the proposition is intended to diminish support among Democratic voters. Republican sponsors of this measure have not been able to show any significant voter fraud at the polling place has happened in Missouri. They point to abuses in petition campaigns and to the recent absentee voting cases in St. Louis but this proposal does not address those matters, nor does it address fraudulent registration and only focuses on making it harder to vote at the polling place and as we have noted in previous entries, most particularly the one for May 18, THAT is not a problem in Missouri.

Some who read these summaries will disagree with our assessments of them, which is fine.  They can post their responses if they wish.  But we encourage voters to force themselves to a few hours of reading the fine print in their newspapers that publish the entire texts of these proposals and to check Ballotpedia.org.  We also encourage voters to consider the agendas of the interests behind them, and the practicality of the purposes for their enactment or continuance.

4 thoughts on “Plainer Language

  1. I know you wanted me to read and understand all this. However, as a further crutch, could you summarize it all? I think you’re suggesting:
    Amendment 1: yes; Amendment 2: yes; Amendment 3: No; Prop A: No; And, a “No” on both Amendments 5 and 6. Am I correct?
    Finally, what happened to Amendment 4?

    • Amendment 4 is part of the summary, Clyde. I haven’t made any recommendations of how you should vote. But I hope this has helped voters decide what they should do. I suggest some Googling will produce additional editorial opinions, or Ballotpedia will, that will help you decide.

Let me know what you think......