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The Daily Guide - Waynesville, MO
  • MU med school expansion tied to tobacco tax hike

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  • A University of Missouri plan to expand its medical school with a second clinical campus in Springfield likely won't happen without an increase in the state's tobacco tax, university leaders said Wednesday.
    They were joined by business and health leaders at a news conference in Springfield to show support for raising the cigarette tax — the lowest in the nation — from the current 17 cents per pack to 90 cents. Missouri voters will consider the ballot measure known as Proposition B in Tuesday's general election.
    When asked if a failed ballot measure would scuttle the plans for the proposed Springfield campus, Columbia campus Chancellor Brady Deaton replied: "Unless there's some alternative (funding), that would not allow this initiative to occur."
    The cigarette tax hike is expected to generate between $283 million and $423 million annually, according to the state auditor's office. Half of the extra money would go to public school districts, with 30 percent set aside for higher education and 20 percent to pay for efforts to keep people from starting to use tobacco or help current users quit.
    The Columbia-based School of Medicine wants to provide third- and fourth-year medical students with experience treating patients at CoxHealth and St. John's Hospital in southwest Missouri.
    Most of the medical school's physical expansion would occur in Columbia, which now admits just 96 new students each year from 1,500 applicants. Construction of a new medical education building in Columbia would cost an estimated $30 million, with another $3 million needed for physical improvements at the two Springfield hospitals. Operational costs would require another $10 million annually.
    Under the proposed expansion, Missouri would boost its first-year class by 32 students, a one-third increase.
    The tobacco vote is the third effort in the past decade to boost state revenue with a cigarette tax hike. Voters rejected a 55-cent-per-pack increase by about 31,000 votes in 2002, and a 2006 ballot measure calling for an 80-cent increase failed by about 61,000 votes.
    Still, University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe remains confident that voters will support the measure, particularly with the stipulated benefits for funding education.
    "The (political) environment is much more ready for a positive vote on this than it was previously," he said.
    The measure could also benefit from the absence of organized opposition from the largest tobacco companies. That's because the measure would elimiante a loophole that allows makers of cheaper brands to recoup money they paid into a state fund set up to offset costs associated with smoking-related illnesses.
    The Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association, though, opposes the tax increase and is warning voters that the guarantees of increased education spending is subject to the future whims of Jefferson City lawmakers. A pair of recent state appeals court rulings sided with the state when it didn't deliver on statutory obligations to restrict money for certain functions.
    Page 2 of 2 - "The state's budget is a shell game. There is no lock box guarantee that Prop B will increase education funding," reads one "Vote No on Prop B" flier distributed by the trade group.
    Business leaders from Columbia and Springfield and the CEOs from the two Springfield hospitals joined University of Missouri officials Wednesday at the news conference. Jon Swope, president and CEO of Mercy Springfield, which operates St. John's Hospital, emphasized the public health benefits of the tax hike and its expected impact on driving down the number of smokers in Missouri.
    He described seeing hospital patients smoking on the sidewalk of the smoke-free complex, "with their IV poles, or in wheelchairs or in hospital gowns."
    "That's the power of addiction," he said.

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