Skunk
Michael Q. McShane

The English language offers several beautiful idioms to describe someone unwelcome at a social gathering. The most common, “a skunk at a garden party,” paints the image quite nicely.

Look at all these glamorous people eating canapés and drinking champagne in their seersucker suits and sundresses! Oh, no—is that what I think it is? RUN!

If you think it’s not a great idea to fund educational programs via cigarette taxes, you can start to feel like a skunk at a garden party.

Here in the great state of Missouri, on November 8 we will vote on a constitutional amendment that would establish a 60-cent tax per pack of cigarettes to create a fund for pre-K education. Backers believe that it would generate as much at $300 million per year, which would pay for tens of thousands of Missouri children to attend pre-K. They have an impressive advertising campaign and a strong social media presence highlighting the bipartisan support they have assembled for their plan.

On one level, I am sympathetic to their cause. I understand that there are perfectly defensible reasons to support raising cigarette taxes. Smoking is terrible, and we want fewer people to do it. Raising taxes will deter them. If we can provide pre-K with the funds such a tax generates, we’re killing two birds with one stone.

But there is more to this plan than meets the eye.

The largest financial backers of the amendment campaign have been big tobacco companies. Why, you might ask, is an industry looking to increase taxes on itself? Well, paired with the 60-cent tax on all packs of cigarettes is a 67-cent surcharge on so-called “wholesale” cigarettes—cigarettes produced by “small tobacco” companies not party to the landmark tobacco settlement that required the big tobacco companies to pay states in exchange for protection against future lawsuits. Big tobacco pays right around 67 cents per pack into these funds, giving small tobacco an edge in the marketplace. This amendment would eliminate that advantage.

What’s more, many anti-smoking and cancer-fighting groups have decided to oppose the amendment. They argue that a 60-cent tax is not substantial enough to deter folks from smoking.

For those of you keeping score at home: We have a cigarette tax campaign that is funded by big tobacco companies and opposed by the American Cancer Society. If I’m a skunk at the garden party, at least I’m in good company.

Setting the parlor intrigue aside, it’s hard for me to not think that for many Missourians, the real draw here is getting something for nothing. I don’t smoke, so I would never pay this tax. Most Missourians, particularly educated and wealthy ones, don’t either, so they won’t have to pay. If the state generates enough funds, there is good reason to believe that many middle-class children of nonsmokers will get pre-K without their parents having to pay a dime.

If we think one step further though, we see the problem. Cigarette taxes are about the most regressive tax we could possibly institute. Poor people pay the brunt of them. If this tax was going to be passed in 1950, when nearly half the population smoked, it would be spread more evenly across the populace. But it is 2016, and only a specific subset of Missourians smoke. What’s worse, a lot of those people are addicted to cigarettes, and we are preying on that addiction to fund something that we want.

Look at what happened in Arkansas, which instituted a lottery in 2008 to provide scholarships for students to attend college in the state. Like cigarettes, lottery tickets are disproportionately purchased by poor people. In Arkansas, scholarship recipients are disproportionately middle- and upper-income, making the scholarship lottery a pretty clear upward transfer of wealth. Sure, it sounded great at the outset, as non—lottery ticket buying parents eyed scholarships for their kids, but on the backs of the poor? It just feels unseemly.

There are reasons to support providing scholarships to pre-K to students in the state, but the how matters. How we fund those services, how we determine who is eligible, and how we pay for them is critically important. These considerations can get lost in big promises to people with little skin in the game.

About the Author

Michael McShane
Mike McShane is the Director of Education Policy for the Show-Me Institute. He is a former high school teacher and earned his PhD in Education Policy at the University of Arkansas. Before coming to the Show-Me Institute, Mike worked at the American Enterprise Institute as a research fellow.