Amendment 3: Politics are Intriguing, but Policy Matters More
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had the chance to talk about my paper Amendment 3: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly on the airwaves and in person all across the state.
Many people have been drawn to the discussion because of the unique political situation surrounding Amendment 3. It is a cigarette tax designed to fund pre-K education that is supported by tobacco companies and opposed by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. How can you not be interested by that?
But let’s cut through the fog. Politics are interesting and might get folks hooked, but ultimately it’s the policy that should concern us.
Backers have some solid reasons to support the proposal. Funds will be made available to both public and private providers, which would, in theory, provide a wider set of options than if funding was restricted solely to traditional public schools. Additionally, the drafters of the Amendment have taken steps to try and insulate the program from the forces of the educational status quo by requiring funds generated by the tax to be kept separate from general revenue and be managed by an independent board.
That said, there are reasons to be concerned about this proposal. While insulating the board from the pressure of interest groups is a laudable objective, it could mean that the board is less accountable to taxpayers. The amendment language also states that the board needs to be “equitable” in its distribution of funds. If you’ve even casually followed discussions of education finance in Missouri and Kansas, decades-long court cases can be fought over exactly what “equitable” means. Is this just opening a similar can of worms?
And all of this dances around the more central question: Even if we think that pre-K is something worth supporting, is a tax on cigarettes an appropriate way to fund it? Cigarette taxes are extremely regressive. Poor people are far more likely to smoke than their richer peers, meaning that the poor will bear the brunt of the tax increase. Smoking is also on the decline, risking future revenue and raising the possibility that services will be cut or pressure will be put on the legislature to divert general revenue to subsidize the program.
For someone who doesn’t smoke but wants pre-K for their kids, Amendment 3 might seem to offer something for nothing. Unfortunately, nothing is free in this life, and someone is going to have to pick up the tab. Whether or not that “someone” should be a group disproportionately made up of economically disadvantaged people is worth considering.