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Last-Minute Tactic Saves Cigarette Tax for Missouri Schools

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Only a last-minute parliamentary maneuver saved a hike in cigarette taxes that will provide an estimated $26 million for Missouri's public schools in 1982-83.

On April 30, the last day of the legislative session, Speaker of the House Bob Griffin pulled the tax bill from a House-Senate conference committee, where representatives of both chambers had been trying to work out a compromise, and submitted the Senate version to the full House, which passed it handily.

Several observers said the Senate, under pressure from rural interests and the tobacco lobby, would have killed any compromise plan devised in the conference committee. Although the House had favored a larger tax increase and a different method of distributing the proceeds, Mr. Griffin urged passage of the Senate version so the Senate would not have a chance to reconsider imposition of the tax increase, observers said.

The measure, which now awaits the signature of Gov. Christopher S. Bond, would raise the tax on a package of cigarettes from 9 to 13 cents. The proceeds, estimated at $20 million to $26 million, would be divided among districts according to a so-called "flat-grant" formula based on average daily attendance.

House leaders originally opposed the flat grant on the grounds that it would aid rural and suburban districts disproportionately. But a computer analysis performed by the state department of education showed that city districts, despite their relatively higher salaries and declining enrollments, would benefit more than had been expected.

In addition to the cigarette-tax increase, the state will appropriate an additional $26 million from its general fund, bringing the total of new revenue to the public schools to $52 million. That is about half of what the state board of education requested, but "more new money than we got last year," pointed out Carol Schmoock, a spokesman for the Missouri National Education Association (mnea), one of the state's three teachers' associations.

More Money Needed

"What we see now is some more money for schools, which is going to help relieve the financial crisis the schools are in," she said. "It's not enough, but ... we're pleased that the House saw fit to deal with the problem."

"Every time funds are passed for schools, there's always the debate about how it gets distributed," she added. "Our feeling is that the important point is that the schools get more money. This rural-vs.-urban debate, I don't know if that'll ever get resolved. The debate is often used to cloud the real situation, which is that all the schools need more money."

By law, 75 percent of the new funds will go toward teachers' salaries, but Ms. Schmoock said it would not be enough to close the salary gap between Missouri's 53,000 teachers and the national average.

According to the Missouri Department of Education, the average teacher's salary in the state in 1980-81 was $15,641. The national average that same year, according to the nea, was $17,264.

The state contributed nearly $708 million in general aid to schools this year--approximately 46 percent of the average district's operating budget.

The legislature's final school-aid package also included a constitutional amendment that would make it easier for school districts to raise local property taxes.

Currently, school boards in the state may levy property taxes of up to $1.25 per $100 of assessed valuation without voter approval; up to $3.75 with the approval of a simple majority of the district's voters; and more than $3.75 only with passage by two-thirds of the voters.

The constitutional amendment passed by the legislature--and subject to statewide referendum this fall--would allow levies of up to $1.75 without a local referendum and would raise to $5.25 the maximum tax rate that can be imposed with the approval of half the voters.

"Basically, it was because the basic rate hadn't changed since 1966," said James L. Morris, a spokesman for the state department of education.

"About 70 percent of the school districts in the state are either at $3.75 or are so close to it that they can only raise a few cents with a majority vote. Where many districts think they'd have a fighting chance with a majority, they really have to struggle to get two-thirds.''

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