Column: Missouri chooses smokers over students, again

“Tax” is a pretty dirty word — especially when it is preceded by its dirty partner in crime, “sin.”

Being the fiscally conservative, government-fearing and arguably delusional Libertarian that I am, you might guess I was thrilled at the failing of Proposition B, and its potential increase in tobacco product taxes last night. Well, guess again.

For a long time, I was a pretty extreme libertarian: not willing to compromise “across the aisle” (as if Libertarians have a place on either side of the aisle), but instead urging a dissolution of social welfare programs and a chopping of budgets and power on the federal level. But somewhere down the road I became more of a “lesser of two evils” voter, which is where I find myself today.

Although I’m socially liberal, the current economic climate is of chief concern to me, and ya boy Mitt, by merely claiming to cut more federal spending than President Obama, captured my ballot this year. But where things got tricky for me at the polls yesterday was in the box marked “Missouri State Proposition B,” or the tobacco products tax increase.

As I said, I’m a proponent of a federal government that provides for the common defense modestly, enforces our laws and protects our property. And although, at the state level, I am a firm believer in the power of government(s) to deal with things as they may, at the heart of my overall political ideology is a fundamental belief that a limited government is an effective and fair government.

At the risk of abandoning the topic at hand and shooting off into a column endorsing limited government, I’ll cut to the chase — I hate sin taxes. A previous version of myself would probably tell you Proposition B is a gross abuse of taxation, which limits my freedom to smoke tobacco products (if that was an activity I took part in). My current self begs to differ, though.

My current self will tell you that sometimes you have to vote on issues rather than your overarching political ideology. This was a lesson I had to learn this election season. It is hard for a libertarian like myself to even consider affirming a sin tax, let alone preach Prop B’s sermon to the student body and urge others to do the same. But the facts are hard to get past.

The average state cigarette tax is $1.49, compared to Missouri’s $0.17, which, by the way, is the lowest in the nation. The contentious Proposition B would have bumped our rate up to $0.89 a pack, an increase of $0.72, or 424 percent — a pretty powerful figure that you’ve likely heard or seen in one of the many “Vote No on B” signs or 30-second spots around the state.

But it wasn’t that we had the lowest tax in the country that pushed me into the “yes” camp. In fact, a low tax is generally something I would boast about. It was the health risk and the associated taxpayer burden via Medicaid, as well as the new revenue allocations, that influenced my vote. Those new allocations would have sent 20 percent of revenue to prevention and cessation programs for smokers, 50 percent to primary and secondary education and, what captures most of my and likely your attention, 30 percent to Missouri’s colleges and universities.

Higher education institutions in Missouri desperately need the revenue that Proposition B would have provided, an estimated $238 million annually.

We, the people of Boone County, did the right thing and passed Prop B with nearly 60 percent of the vote, but our friends (ex-friends, now) north and south of I-70 let us down. I don’t like to think of myself as an issues voter, nor a proponent of goods taxation. But I couldn’t be more upset that we failed to put our political differences aside and make the right choice for Missouri health and higher education this November. Bummer.

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