HELENA – Supporters of a proposed voter initiative to increase state tobacco taxes and extend Montana’s expanded Medicaid program said they turned in 40,000 signatures Thursday – well past the minimum needed to qualify the measure for the November ballot.
Backers of Initiative 185 submitted the signatures at county election offices across the state, one day before the deadline.
“We believe we have enough signatures and we’re very hopeful it will be on the ballot this November,” said Lois Fitzpatrick, an I-185 volunteer in Helena.
County election officials now have four weeks to verify whether the signatures are those of registered voters, and forward those numbers to the secretary of state’s office for final certification.
Also on Thursday, supporters of another proposed initiative to create new water standards for hard-rock mines said they expect to have enough signatures to qualify it for the November ballot.
Initiative 186 prohibits the permitting of any mine in Montana if its reclamation plan requires “perpetual treatment” of acid-mine drainage or other “contaminants” leaching from the mine site.
Colin Cooney, Montana field coordinator for Trout Unlimited, told MTN News that I-186 backers expect to submit between 42,000 and 45,000 signatures Thursday and Friday.
A voter initiative needs the signatures of at least 25,468 registered Montana voters to qualify for the ballot. It also requires signatures from at least 5 percent of registered voters in at least 34 of Montana’s 100 state House districts.
“We’re very excited about the the numbers we have in the short time we’ve had to gather (signatures),” Cooney said.
I-185, the tobacco tax/Medicaid measure, has the backing of Gov. Steve Bullock, the state’s hospitals and a broad array of health-care, labor and low-income groups.
If passed by voters, it would increase state taxes on a pack of cigarettes by $2, to $3.70 per pack.
It also increases taxes on other tobacco products, such as moist snuff, and e-cigarette supplies, and would extend Montana’s Medicaid expansion program past next year. Under current law, the Medicaid program is set to expire in July 2019.
Medicaid expansion provides government-funded health coverage for childless adults earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $16,600 for a single person. It currently covers about 96,000 people – almost a tenth of the state’s entire population.
The federal government funds about 95 percent of the program now, but federal support declines to 90 percent by 2020. The state must pick up the rest of the cost.
Under I-185, up to $26 million of the revenue from the higher tobacco taxes would go toward the state share of Medicaid expansion. That share is expected to be more than $26 million, once the federal share drops to 90 percent.
Supporters estimate the higher tax would raise about $50 million a year. Language in I-185 directs the rest of the money to a variety of other uses, such as funding tobacco-cessation programs, home- and community-based Medicaid services and health services for military veterans.
Fitzpatrick said her father, who began smoking at age 11, died from cancer when she was 17 years old, and that the higher tobacco taxes in I-185 will help prevent other families from going through what her family experienced.
“It will save lives,” she said. “Every time the tobacco tax goes up, people stop smoking, and it will prevent approximately 21,000 Montana youth from starting to smoke.
“We need to save families. No child should ever be without their parent, and this will help.”