May 26, 2016 – Weekly Capitol Update

RULING PUTS CIGARETTE TAX BALLOT MEASURE IN JEOPARDY

One of two competing ballot initiatives to increase the state’s tobacco tax is in jeopardy after a judge on May 19 ruled its fiscal estimate is “insufficient and unfair,” and doesn’t accurately inform voters of how much revenue it would generate. If the ruling stands, it would invalidate the petitions submitted in early May to put the measure on the Nov. 8 ballot since they contained the allegedly faulty ballot language.

Raise Your Hands for Kids, the group pushing the proposal, plans to appeal. The proposed constitutional amendment would increase the state cigarette tax by 60 cents per pack for all brands and impose an additional surcharge of 67 cents per pack on discount brands. Those brands are produced by companies that aren’t party to the national tobacco settlement, which requires participating companies to make annual payments to Missouri and other states in compensation for the companies’ past deceptive marketing practices.

The fiscal estimate prepared by the State Auditor’s Office says the measure, if ratified, would generate an estimated $263 million to $374 million a year, with most of the revenue earmarked for early childhood education programs. In striking down the auditor’s estimate, Cole County Circuit Judge Dan Green said it was “unreasonably high” because it failed to take into account the fact that cigarette sales will likely decline due to the substantially higher taxes. Missouri’s existing cigarette tax of 17 cents per pack is the lowest in the nation.

The other tobacco proposal seeks to increase the cigarette tax by 23 cents a pack, with no extra surcharge on certain brands, and dedicate the revenue for road and bridge improvements. The Secretary of State’s Office is continuing review both petitions to determine if they have sufficient signatures to go on the fall ballot.

 

HIGH COURT UPHOLDS REGISTRATION RULE FOR HOUSE SEATS

In a 4-3 decision, the Missouri Supreme Court on May 20 upheld the validity of a state constitutional provision requiring members of the House of Representatives to be registered Missouri voters for at least two year prior to taking office.

The case was brought by state Rep. Joshua Peters, D-St. Louis, who had petitioned to disqualify the candidacy of Rachel Johns, who had filed against him in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary for the 76th House District. Although Johns conceded she hadn’t registered to vote in Missouri until February 2015 and, therefore, didn’t meet the two-year requirement, she argued the requirement violated her right to seek office.

While a four-judge majority upheld the two-year durational requirement, thus disqualifying Johns from seeking a House seat this year, three judges said they would have struck it down for imposing a “substantial burden” on Johns’ right to run for the state legislature.

 

SUPREME COURT REJECTS RETIRED JUDGES’ BACK PAY CLAIM

The Missouri Supreme Court on May 24 unanimously rejected a class-action lawsuit that claimed state judges were underpaid for two years before large judicial pay hikes took effect in July 2014. The lawsuit had sought back pay for all judges who were on the bench between July 2012 and July 2014, as well as increases in retirement benefits for those who retired during that period.

The most recent state Salary Commission pay scales for judges were implemented on July 1, 2012, and judges’ pay at a percentage of what federal judges were earning at that time. A federal court subsequently ruled that Congress had repeatedly miscalculated pay levels for federal judges dating to 1989 and ordered judicial salaries to be adjusted accordingly. Following the federal ruling, state judges argued their salaries should be increased as well, and on July 1, 2014, they received pay hikes ranging from $17,000 a year for associate circuit judges to $21,000 a year for Supreme Court judges.

Former Jackson County Circuit Judge Peggy Stevens McGraw and former Lawrence County Associate Circuit Judge Samuel Jones both retired before the 2014 pay hikes took effect. As a result, their retirement benefits are set based on substantially lower salaries than if they had retired after July 1, 2014. In their lawsuit, they claimed the 2014 pay hikes should have been retroactively implemented to July 1, 2012, which would entitle them to back pay for the period they claimed they were underpaid prior to retirement and drastically increase their retirement benefits.

In an unsigned opinion not attributable to any particular judge, the Supreme Court upheld a trial judge’s ruling that the judges had no legal claim to back pay or higher retirement benefits based on judicial pay hikes that kicked in after they had retired.

 

NIXON WON’T CALL EARLY ELECTION ON PHOTO ID MEASURE

A proposed constitutional amendment to grant the General Assembly the legal authority to require Missourians to show government-issued photo identification in order to vote will definitely go the Nov. 8 statewide ballot after Gov. Jay Nixon on May 24 announced he won’t exercise his constitutional prerogative to move the proposal to the Aug. 2 primary ballot.

Republicans lawmakers passed the measure, House Joint Resolution 53, in early May over Democratic objections. The GOP-controlled General Assembly first sought to enact a photo voter ID law in 2006, but the Missouri Supreme Court struck it down for imposing new conditions on the right to vote in violation of the state constitution. As a result a constitutional change is necessary to impose a photo voter ID requirement.

Because HJR 53 goes on the ballot, Nixon had no authority to veto it. However, Nixon is expected to reject companion legislation, House Bill 1631, also passed this year that would implement the photo voter ID requirement, subject to voter ratification of HJR 53

While Republicans claim photo voter ID is necessary to combat voter fraud, voter impersonation – the only type of fraud it could prevent – is virtually non-existent. Democrats say the real purpose is to disenfranchise large number of minority, elderly and disabled voters, since members of these groups are the most likely to not have a photo ID and tend to vote Democratic.