Analysis: Mo. voters continue rejecting taxes
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Increase tobacco taxes? Add a cellphone tax? Raise gas taxes? No to all.
Missouri voters in recent decades have eschewed tax increases for a range of things: funding schools and transportation projects, improving 911 service and paying for health care efforts.
The proposals have been defeated narrowly and by sweeping margins; voted down during general elections, primaries and a spring election. And they have been rejected when backers of a previous failed attempt decided to try again.
Passing a tax increase in Missouri has proven to be awfully difficult, no matter the tax or the destination for the extra cash.
The most recent example of no-tax Missouri was this month's statewide defeat of a tobacco tax increase that called for divvying the money among K-12 education, colleges and smoking cessation and prevention programs. That same day, local governments struggled to win approval for a replacement tax after the state Supreme Court invalidated a long-charged sales tax on vehicles purchased out-of-state.
City and county organizations said a new "use tax" was rejected in two-thirds of the cities and counties where it appeared. Richard Sheets, the deputy director for the Missouri Municipal League, said "anti-tax" sentiment seemed to be one factor in the defeats.
"It's just a tough issue," he said.
On the statewide ballot, taxes have been tougher. Tobacco tax increases were shot down three times during the past decade. Cellphone taxes failed in 1999 and 2002. And a plan to boost the sales tax and gas tax for transportation was rejected in August 2002. Tax proposals also were killed in 1982, 1988 and 1991.
Several years after voters rejected a tax increase aimed at boosting funding for schools, Gov. Mel Carnahan and the state Legislature passed one in 1993 without seeking voter approval. In 1996, a constitutional amendment to require voter approval for substantial tax increases was approved.
The last time Missouri voters went for a statewide tax increase — not counting a ballot initiative for casinos that included a tax component — was 1987. Before that, voters approved a new sales tax for parks and soil and water conservation in 1984, renewing it in 1988, 1996 and 2006.
In all, Missouri voters have a 25-year string of turning back new or increased taxes that has translated into a lighter tax burden compared to other states. The Federation of Tax Administrators estimated that for 2011, Missouri state government collected about $1,682 per person (excluding local taxes), lower than all but four other states.
The 17-cent tax per pack of cigarettes is the lowest nationally, and Missouri has gone the second longest without raising cigarette taxes. North Dakota last raised its tobacco taxes several months before Missouri did in 1993.
So what would it take for voters to approve a tax increase?
Combining it with other policy changes might work, as it did four years ago, when voters signed off on an initiative raising casino taxes. But the measure, which was backed by the casino industry, also capped the number of casinos that could be licensed in Missouri and scrapped the limit on how much gamblers could lose.
Tangible benefits matter, too. Pointing to a specific road or building to be built can be an easier sell than abstract concepts, such as how much additional money would flow to education.
Demonstrating some budget exhaustion could help to win some recalcitrant voters.
Patrick Werner, the state director of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, said it would be a long time before he could see his organization supporting a tax increase. However, he said a strong effort to cut spending, accompanied by a demonstration of the lengths to which budgets had been cut and to which priorities funding was steered, could help persuade some Missourians on a tax increase.
"You will at least get a better reception from folks," Werner said.
Approving an increase might require broader consideration of Missouri's taxes.
Amy Blouin, the executive director of the nonprofit Missouri Budget Project, which was among the groups supporting the most recent tobacco tax, said it might be time for discussion about modernizing the tax structure to update income tax brackets and to close business loopholes.
She said there seems to be more involved in the latest "no" vote than tax animosity. Blouin pointed to doubts about funds being used as intended and concern about targeting a tax that only is paid by part of the population but would benefit many more.
"I do think Missourians have reached the point where it's clear that they want services," Blouin said.
But it is unclear whether that translates into an electorate ready to say "yes" after so many years of rejections.
Chris Blank has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him at http://twitter.com/ChrisBlank2.