Missouri ballot initiatives: Will big-business’ interests trump voters’ interests?

Three measures in Missouri garnered enough petition signatures to make it on the November 2012 ballot, but will Missourians’ conviction be enough? With nearly twice the required minimum number of signatures on each petition, Missourians submitted ballot measures to raise the minimum wage, increase the country’s lowest cigarette tax, and cap loan annual percentage rates (APR) at 36%. Once reviewed and approved by the Missouri Secretary of State, they should be on the November ballot, but opposition is fierce.

Moneyed interests are fighting the petition to cap loan APR’s with bully tactics that include physically preventing signers from accessing petitions, harassing signature gatherers and signers, perhaps even breaking into a gatherer’s car to steal more than 2,000 signatures. Payday lenders and their enablers also filed a lawsuit claiming that the language of the measure is “deceptive.” Faith leaders and proponents disagreed.

In early April, a circuit court judge sided with lenders, ruling the petition’s language “insufficient, unfair, likely to deceive petition signers and voters.” The Missouri attorney general’s office filed an appeal of the ruling, but now the opponents of the cap are pushing Secretary of State Robin Carnahan to invalidate the more than 180,000 signatures in order to keep it off the ballot in November.

It is clear from the sheer number of signatures alone that many Missourians agree the current annual percentage rate of payday and title loans is exorbitant. Efforts to inform voters are paying off. More than 430% APR on a single small loan does little to help low-income people—who are overwhelmingly targeted by these types of lenders—stem the tide of debt, and Missourians know this. Voters’ interests, however, may not be enough against a huge Missouri predatory lending industry willing to bully, buy, and lawyer their way to victory.

It may come as little surprise that big tobacco is also waging a battle to prevent Missourians from voting to raise Missouri’s tobacco tax from 17 cents to 90 cents per pack. Despite garnering over 220,000 signatures and an apparent mandate, this ballot measure’s language was also challenged in court. A trial judge in Cole County recently upheld the measure’s language, declaring it clear and fair. Pending the secretary of state’s review and approval, the measure could make it to the ballot.

It’s worth noting, however, that the Missouri legislature had quite a few bills last session regarding a cigarette tax increase and unilaterally failed to bring them to the floor. Again, this is not a big surprise, especially given this year’s antics and the many failures of the Missouri legislature to enact laws for the greater good. (What happened to all those jobs we were promised?)

Voters have also defeated efforts to raise the tobacco tax twice in the last decade. Recent budget cut battles, austerity measures, and public sector layoffs may convince them that increased tobacco tax is much-needed revenue for education and smoking cessation programs.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce is opposing the ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage to $8.25 from its current level of $7.25 per hour and also allows for increases every year based on inflation. Opponents claim paying employees a full dollar more per hour is a financial hardship on employers during “fragile” economic times and could abate hiring, but they made the same claim in 2006 when the economy was in better shape, and unemployment was about half the levels we’ve been seeing.

There is no evidence to suggest that giving low wage workers a small raise in itself harms the job market, though it’s not difficult to argue that paying people too little is seriously distressing for millions of families. All three of the Republican candidates currently duking it out [in extreme fashion] in the primary to run against Claire McCaskill could not even tell you what the minimum wage is, much less how detrimental or beneficial it is. And yet they all oppose increasing the minimum wage for Missourians and across the country. Disconnect much?

Wages nationwide and around the world have scarcely kept pace with inflation, as countless experts and economists have asserted. Though our personal hardships may be a testament to this fact, it is difficult to predict whether an extremely and increasingly polarized red state—complete with newly drawn political districts–will disregard all the paid-for political noise and vote in their own best interests.

We’ll find out in November.