Proposition B: Forcing Smokers to Cough Up for Education
Non-smokers may think they have nothing to lose if they vote to increase taxes on tobacco products in Missouri. And if the resulting revenues are set aside in a “lock box” for public education, one might think this is a real win-win proposition — both discouraging a bad habit and raising more money for our schools.
That is the argument that proponents of Proposition B are making in calling for a whopping 429 percent increase in Missouri’s cigarette tax (from 17 cents a pack to 90 cents). But there are good reasons for rejecting this argument.
First, tobacco taxes are regressive in nature and disproportionately harm the poor. It is wrong to place a higher tax burden on people who are least able to afford it simply because they are engaged in an activity that is not popular.
Second, no one should trust the security of the so-called “lock box.” Though Proposition B states the revenue directed to K-12 education should be “in addition to” funds from the school funding formula, it is likely the new money will replace other state funds. A provision in the bill allows tobacco dollars to be used in the school funding formula if it is underfunded, which currently it is. The lock box is already open and there is little reason to expect legislators to close it.
Third, and most importantly, more money does not necessarily mean the quality of education will improve. According to the Digest of Education Statistics, Missouri increased per-pupil spending on education by almost 40 percent in inflation adjusted dollars between 1992 and 2008. Despite that, Missouri’s achievement scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have remained almost flat.
Making sure our kids get a great education is a moral imperative. It is also politically popular. Yet, specifically targeting politically unpopular and vulnerable groups in order to raise money for education is the wrong approach to fixing our schools. We all know that smoking leads to a variety of health problems. But that does not give the government license to inflict punitive taxes on people engaged in a legal activity. This is behavior modification through taxation and is the equivalent of taxing milkshakes in order to fund road construction.
Real improvement in education will come from making Missouri a place that attracts business and educational entrepreneurs; a place where parents are free to choose and schools are free to innovate. Making smokers cough up more tax dollars for education will not achieve these goals and will do little to provide a strong, sustainable educational system for future generations.
Michael Rathbone is a policy researcher and James V. Shuls is the education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.