HELENA – The Montana Supreme Court Wednesday unanimously rejected a request to change the ballot wording on an initiative that would increase state tobacco taxes and extend Montana’s expanded Medicaid coverage for poor people.
Chief Justice Mike McGrath, writing for the court, said while the summary of Initiative 185 contained a mathematical error describing part of the tax increase, it is not misleading.
“Nothing in the ballot statement is misleading or confusing,” McGrath wrote. “We will not invalidate a ballot statement simply because a better one could have been written.”
I-185, if approved by voters this fall, will raise state taxes on cigarettes by $2 a pack and increase taxes on other tobacco products. It’s estimated to raise $74 million a year by 2023 – money that would be spent on a variety of health-care programs, including Medicaid expansion.
It also would remove a 2019 expiration date for Medicaid expansion, making the program permanent. Medicaid expansion is providing health coverage for nearly 100,000 low-income Montana adults, funded largely by the federal government.
The high court ruling rejected a request by Montanans Against Tax Hikes, a committee opposing I-185 and funded mostly by two tobacco companies.
The group said the 135-word statement that will appear on the ballot describing I-185, written by Attorney General Tim Fox’s office, contained a mathematical mistake on the proposed tax increase and should also have said the higher tax could lead to more spending by the state general fund.
It asked the court to order a new statement be written.
The statement appearing on the ballot, describing the measure, says the initiative will raise taxes on other tobacco products by 33 percent.
The group against I-185 said the measure raises those taxes from 50 percent to 83 percent – which is 33 percentage points, or, a 67 percent increase, rather than 33 percent.
McGrath acknowledged that the ballot statement includes a “mathematical misstatement,” but that it still “captures the purpose and fiscal impacts in summary fashion,” and adequately informs voters.