Breaking down Tuesday's ballot issues
By Jason Norbury
Every year, I take some time out and attempt to apply my legal training to reviewing and translating the various ballot issues, and then post my opinions on social media, with (sometimes lengthy) analysis of what each issue says. If you want the full versions, search for the author on Facebook (the posts are public).
GUEST COMMENTARY — Jason Norbury is a Lee's Summit resident and attorney.
Here, I will give a slightly briefer version of the review, with less opinion included. It’s important to know what you are voting on, and the ballot language can be terribly incomplete. As a general rule, I find ballot initiatives an inefficient and ineffective way to govern a state, and much of my criticism will be from that angle. However, several of these are required to come to a vote to be enacted (usually measures that would continue or raise a tax).
With no further ado:
MISSOURI CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT NO. 1
This question is to decide whether to continue the state-wide 1/10% sales tax, specifically sequestered to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, half for soil and water conservation, and half for the operation and administration of state parks and historic sites.
This tax was initially approved in the 1980s, and has been continued at 10 year intervals by wide vote margins ever since. The DNR has a good track record of stewardship of the funds raised.
MISSOURI CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT NO. 2
In short, this proposed amendment brings back contribution limits to Missouri elections.
In 1994, Missouri voted by a nearly 3 to 1 margin to install campaign contribution limits. These limits were repealed in 2008 by the Legislature and then Governor Matt Blunt. The results of repeal have been generally poor. A Single donor has given $24 million dollars in this election cycle alone to his preferred candidates, giving him outsize influence on the election, and by extension, policy. Combined with term limits, and our legislature has seemingly become government-by-lobbyist, since lobbyists are the longest serving people in the Capitol, and unlimited money buys all the votes and influence you can imagine.
In addition to limiting the amounts any one person can give to any one candidate or committee, the amendment proposes to do the following:
- Prohibit direct corporate or labor organization giving (they must establish committees instead)
- Prohibit cross-contributions between candidate committees (this was a way to get around the former laws)
- Limit the sources for loans to candidate committees (banks only)
- Increase transparency of donations to committees
This generally replicates the structure that was in place before the 2008 repeal.
There are some concerns:
- Some of these limitations may run afoul of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, which means parts or the whole might get declared unconstitutional, and it is unclear how the composition of the court may change and affect that decision and this law.
- This kind of measure should be statutory, but is instead being proposed as a constitutional amendment. There is bound to be some portion of the amendment that doesn't work as intended, or has some bad consequence. It’s a fairly simple matter to fix a statute that doesn’t work as intended. Amendments like this require statewide referenda to fix, which is inefficient governance. The legislature is to blame on this, because their repeal of the limits broke the trust with the public, and this measure is meant to bypass and override them.
MISSOURI CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT 3
This is one of the more hotly contested and controversial ballot measures this year. It proposes to increase state taxes on cigarettes from 17 cents to 77 cents per pack. It also adds a 67 cent per pack “manufacturer assessment” to the tobacco producers who aren’t participating in the nationwide tobacco settlement. These would be phased in over 4 years, and estimated to generate between $263 million and $374 million per year when fully phased.
The taxes would go to the “Early Childhood Health and Education Trust Fund” which would be managed by a Commission of designees from various state departments, two members of the legislature and six citizens. At least 75% of the funds collected are to go to increasing access to and quality of early childhood education programs. 10-15% are to go to Missouri hospitals and health care facilities to improve access to and quality of early childhood health and development programs, and 5-10% is to go to “evidence-based smoking cessation and prevention programs for Missouri pregnant mothers and youth.”
If this were all the amendment did, there would be much less controversy. Instead, the amendment has drawn significant criticism:
- The Commission is unelected, and thus not specifically accountable to the public in how it uses the funds.
- The language of the amendment is unclear on limiting funds from reaching religious programs or programs that do not necessarily serve the needy.
- The smoking cessation programs allowed are very limited, and align generally with programs and technologies owned by Big Tobacco (the largest financial backer of this initiative).
- The limits for benefits to legal residents of the U.S. may put an unneeded burden on the grant recipients.
- There is language prohibiting any grant funds to be used with anything relating to abortions. This has drawn criticism from both anti-abortion groups as well as pro-choice groups (odd bedfellows, to be sure).
- Use of the fund for stem cell research is specifically prohibited.
- The amendment prohibits any funds to be used for tobacco-related research, an odd restriction on a bill that purports to aim to reduce smoking.
- The amount of the tax increase has been criticized as too low by anti-smoking groups, saying that it doesn’t raise cigarette taxes even to the national average, nor enough to deter smoking. It has also been criticized by tobacco sellers as too much of a tax increase.
- Once again, this is a statutory scheme set as a constitutional amendment.
MISSOURI CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT NO. 4
This amendment would prohibit any new sales or use tax on anything that is not currently subject to a sales or use tax.
Supporters of this amendment have stated it is needed to prevent the legislature from beginning to apply sales taxes to services.
Opponents state that there has been no bill voted on by either chamber of the legislature to impose sales taxes on services. Even if there were, such a tax would be required to gain a majority vote by ballot measure, per current Missouri Constitutional requirements. Additionally, the legislature just overrode a veto to pass legislation that stopped the state from taxing sales of educational lessons. Therefore this is a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.
There are also concerns about the future impact of this amendment. If there were a standard compact for taxing internet sales, Missouri would not be able to join it (without significant litigation). Or, if Missouri were to legalize the sale of marijuana, it would also not be subject to a sales tax.
MISSOURI CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT NO. 6
The proposed amendment would allow requiring the presentation of government-issued picture ID to vote.
Supporters claim this is needed to prevent voter impersonation fraud.
Opponents note that there have been fewer than 5 cases of attempted voter impersonation in Missouri over the last 7 general elections. Estimates are that initially some 200,000 Missourians (predominately the elderly and poor) would potentially lose their right to vote, and that many of those would be unable to get a sufficient ID due to cost, lack of birth records or homelessness.
Any proposed limitation on the fundamental right to vote should be viewed with great suspicion.
MISSOURI PROPOSITION A
This is a different proposed cigarette tax, this one a 23 cent per pack addition and 5% increase on other tobacco products. It also contains a self-repeal provision, that if any additional tobacco tax, state or local, even appears on a ballot, the tax would be immediately repealed. Funds would be dedicated to transportation infrastructure.
While less complex than Amendment 3, it has drawn even more criticism. It appears to conflict with Amendment 3, which if both are approved would lead to certain litigation. It is even smaller than the tax in Amendment 3, and is supported by “Cheap Tobacco” because it does not include the fee for their products. The self-repeal language is a particularly nasty poison pill.
JACKSON COUNTY QUESTION #1
This would renew the one-quarter percent sales tax that funds COMBAT, which funds treatment of drug addiction and prevention of violent crime. COMBAT is a generally well-regarded program.
JACKSON COUNTY QUESTION #2
This would establish a one-eighth percent sales tax (new) to fund mental health and other services for county residents 19 and under.
Mental health services are generally critically underfunded, and this would create $15 million per year to help treat young people.
JACKSON COUNTY QUESTION #3
This bill relates to the continuance of sales taxes on cars purchased out-of-state. It currently generates about $3.2 million annually for the county. The language is somewhat confusing:
A YES vote would stop the county from collecting the tax in the future.
A NO vote would allow the collection to continue.
This is a proposed property tax levy increase for the Mid-Continent Public Library System, from 32 cents per hundred to 40 cents per hundred. This equates to about a $23 annual increase on a $150,000 home. Funds would be used to expand collections, offerings, and services, as well as new buildings and facility improvements. A no vote would lead to reduced hours, closed facilities and a reduction in materials.
This is the first request for more revenue in 30 years by MCPL, which had over 4 million visits to its branches last year, as well as 3.4 million visits to its “virtual branch.” MCPL is part of what makes living in Lee’s Summit great, and the library is one area quietly hurt by tax abatements on property development.
CITY OF LEE’S SUMMIT QUESTION
A YES vote on this question would authorize the city to issue $14.5 million in bonds for public safety improvements, specifically:
- New emergency services radio equipment
- Acquisition of land and building a replacement for Fire Station 3
- The purchase of new breathing tanks
Lee’s Summit exists in a radio “donut hole,” the only city in the area not using upgraded digital radio emergency radio equipment, which not only limits LSPD and LSFD in their ability to communicate with other cities’ departments, but also from communicating directly with one another. This upgrade is absolutely needed for the continued excellent service Lee’s Summit receives.
Fire Station 3 is too small to properly fit people and equipment, and a new station is needed. Finally, the new breathing tanks will replace old equipment and upgrade the ability of LSFD to combat fires.
JUDICIAL RETENTION ELECTIONS
All Jackson County judges are nominated by a non-partisan political process and appointed by the Governor. None of the judges have given any indication of being unfit to continue serving, and should be retained.