Big tobacco cash wasted in Colorado
Thursday, February 28, 2002 - The world's largest cigarette manufacturer staged one of its costliest lobbying efforts in Colorado legislative history this session, according to a recent tally.
But it went up in smoke.
Philip Morris Inc. pumped about $63,000 into the campaign coffers of 53 state legislators from both parties just before the session to gain support for a measure to cap the bonds required by tobacco companies when they appeal a court judgment.
But bill opponents said the money couldn't overcome the protest from big, nonprofit health organizations. In the end, the bill's sponsor tabled the bill amid accusations and name-calling that she called unprecedented in her 16-year political career.
By Colorado standards, $63,000 from "Big Tobacco" in one quarter is big bucks.
"They've never done this kind of a dump before in Colorado," said Pete Maysmith, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, a political watchdog agency that keeps track of donations. "I think it's a clear example of an interest trying to buy a piece of legislation."
The effort in Colorado amounts to only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of dollars the tobacco industry is thought to be spending on a national effort to get similar legislation passed in other states. Philip Morris spokesman Dave Tovar declined to say how much his company is spending.
So far, the campaign has succeeded in 10 states. Colorado was among six others introducing the legislation this session. Tovar said Colorado joined Missouri and Ohio in extinguishing the campaign. Efforts are still alive in Michigan, New York and Oregon, he said.
"The public outcry was enormous. We got more calls on this bill - about 400 in one week's time - than any other related to tobacco," said Christopher Sherwin, executive director of the Colorado Tobacco Education and Prevention Alliance, a coalition of organizations that include the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Lung Association and Colorado Academy of Family Physicians.
Philip Morris declined to speculate on why giant tobacco's efforts failed in Colorado. "From our perspective, the purpose of this kind of legislation is to protect the state's interests in receiving its annual revenues from the (national tobacco settlement) by ensuring that tobacco companies have the ability to appeal large judgments," Tovar said from Philip Morris' New York headquarters.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Norma Anderson, has played a key role in helping Colorado disburse its $2.9 billion share of a 1998 national tobacco settlement to education, health and anti-tobacco programs. Anderson, a Lakewood Republican and nonsmoker, said she wanted to ensure that the payments continue and that tobacco companies maintain their constitutional right to appeal judgments against them. When a company is required to put up an amount equal to 100 percent of a judgment in order to appeal it, they don't bother because they can't afford it, she said.
"The legislation could have helped preserve the settlement money by keeping tobacco companies from going bankrupt," said Anderson, who received an $885 contribution from Philip Morris in November. "If they go bankrupt, there will be no more payments."
Anderson tabled the measure just before it was scheduled for debate on the Senate floor and was vilified by what she said was misinformation, accusations and name-calling by bill opponents.
Anderson said she had the votes to pass the measure but decided to kill it.
Colorado's legislation proposed to cap the bonds at $25 million, although Anderson said she planned to raise it to $75 million. Most states require companies to put up the entire judgment amount. In Colorado, judges have the discretion to say how much companies must forfeit while a judgment is being appealed.
In contrast to Philip Morris' contributions, two other major corporations, Qwest and AT&T, gave a total of $18,100 to 25 lawmakers in the three months before this session in support of various pieces of telecommunications legislation.
The tobacco bill's biggest nonprofit opponents, who by law are barred from giving money to political candidates, said they fought hard to kill the measure.
"Opponents were outraged that the tobacco companies would get this special protection," Sherwin said. "We fight any legislation . . . bad for Colorado citizens."