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County cigarette tax hike brought big bucks to lobbyists

Updated: January 30, 2013 9:20PM



Big tobacco came knocking on Cook County government’s door last year as Board President Toni Preckwinkle and commissioners pushed through a series of tax increases, including a $1-a-pack cigarette tax increase.

A new report issued Wednesday shows lobbyists for tobacco interests earned big bucks — $220,000 in all — in 2012 to lean on elected leaders, according to Cook County Clerk David Orr’s office, which compiles a public list of lobbying activity.

Republic Companies, also known as Glenview-based Republic Tobacco, paid out the most for lobbying on tobacco issues of any firm last year: $140,000. But reports show the firm Republic hired to do the lobbying — Chicago-based All-Circo Inc. — held no meetings, placed no phone calls or sent emails to elected leaders or staff during the year.

Orr tells the Sun-Times that raises more than a few questions.

“It is of concern to me that this much money was spent and it was a somewhat controversial issue and yet no contacts were allegedly made,” Orr told the Sun-Times. “It raises some serious questions about whether any lobbying took place or not.”

John Kelly, with All-Circo, told the Sun-Times: “We were retained by Republic Tobacco over the course of a few years, with regard to the tobacco tax (increase) — to fight against that.”

Lobbyists for the firm met — and reported to the clerk — meeting with elected officials in 2011 “because that was the bulk of the fight on that issue,” Kelly said.

Indeed Republic Tobacco, which sells loose tobacco, was pushing back a proposal for a first-ever county tax on loose tobacco that was proposed and passed in 2011, and went in to effect in 2012. Under the new tax, loose tobacco was initially taxed at 30 cents an ounce, doubling to 60 cents this year.

According to Kelly, Republic Tobacco didn’t pay All-Circo to lobby county government officials. Instead the $140,000 the company earned in 2012 was to educate Republic’s clients — namely stores selling loose tobacco to the public — about the “ramifications” of the new tax and to convince those stores to stay with Republic and not look beyond the county’s borders for companies that sell the same products, but without the tax, Kelly said.

Of the $2.4 million companies paid out to lobbyists working on a range of issues before county government in 2012, All-Circo earned the biggest chunk, collecting $840,000 or 35 percent of the compensation, according to Orr’s office.

Altria, the Phillip Morris parent company, paid lobbyists $39,000 and had “21 contacts” — meetings — with a majority of county commissioners as well as a top Preckwinkle aide; The Cigar Association of America paid a lobbyist $20,000 last year with just one meeting listed while RYO Machine LLC, which is an Ohio-based “roll-your-own cigarette company” paid $10,000 for lobbying several commissioners as well as Preckwinkle, according to Orr’s office; and RAI Services Company, which the clerk’s office notes is the parent company of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., paid out $10,000 to Chicago firm Nicolay & Dart LLC, but reported lobbyists hadn’t contacted any elected leaders.

Asked about lobbyists reaching out to the county board president and her staff, Preckwinkle spokeswoman Kristen Mack wrote: “the administration is open to hearing all sides of issues before it. Our office was contacted as these groups were making the rounds and we heard them out. President Preckwinkle maintained her position that there are public health benefits associated with increasing cigarette and tobacco taxes – lives are saved, more people quit and fewer young people pick up the habit. Any money generated will help fund our public health system which deals with the consequences of smoking-related illness. In the end, all the measures successfully passed.”

Lobbyists hit up elected leaders in February, just before a series of county tax increases pushed by Preckwinkle and approved by the county board kicked in on cigars, chew and tobacco for roll-your-own cigarettes. And they were back in the fall – as Preckwinkle was proposing and the county board ultimately approved a $1-a-pack cigarette tax hike.

Preckwinkle had pushed for the cigarette tax increase, and won the votes on the board to pass it, by noting it was a public health issue that was taking a toll on communities as well as the county-funded public health system.

To examine the clerk’s searchable database of lobbyists, what they earned and their contacts with elected leaders go to: http://www.cookcountyclerk.com/ethics/lobbyistonline/Pages/default.aspx.



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