By Patrick Hicks of Portland, Oregon who says he "used to be a Republican until I couldn't stand it anymore."
Repeat after me:
Minnis helped give the axe
To a dime-a-pack cigarette tax.
Isn't it funny
When they donate big money,
It's the cigarette lobby she backs.
The cigarette manufacturers are very big campaign contributors in Oregon. They don't contribute money because they are passionate about Oregon politics. They do it to influence votes. They do it to gain favor from legislators, and their goal is to sell more cigarettes. What better way to do that than with a price cut? In the 2005 Legislative session, House Speaker Karen Minnis led the Republican controlled House of Representatives to make Oregon the first and only state to reduce cigarette taxes.
In the 2004 election cycle R J Reynolds and Phillip Morris USA combined to make $43,100 in campaign contributions to 22 candidates for seats in the Oregon House of Representatives and $18,700 in contributions to 11 candidates for the Oregon Senate. 20 of the 22 house candidates receiving these contributions were Republicans and 2 were Democrats. In the Senate races, 7 candidates were Republicans and 4 were Democrats. The Republican Party is the party of 'Big Tobacco' by a margin of 27 to 6.
In 2006, the trend continues with tobacco company contributions of $1,000 to a single Democrat and $30,500 to 17 Republican candidates currently running for house seats. In the senate, 3 Republican candidates combined received a total of $4,500 in contributions and 2 Democrats received a combined total of $2,000. The margin is 20 Republicans receiving tobacco company contributions to 3 Democrats.
In 2004, the Minnis campaign received contributions from the tobacco lobby that totaled $11,000, making her portion over 25% of their total contributions for house races, and almost 6 times the next highest amount received by any house candidate. The next highest contribution was a total of $1,850, to Republican House Majority Leader Wayne Scott, and the same amount went to Democrat Betsy Johnson.
In the 2006 race, the Minnis campaign received $6,500 from cigarette manufacturers for the Spring primary election and the Wayne Scott campaign received $5,000. The next highest amount was $2,000 to two other Republican candidates. This time Minnis received over 20% of the total tobacco lobby contributions to house races.
Two PAC's also figure into the equation. 'The Speakers' PAC' and 'Majority 2006'. (Majority 2004 was renamed Majority 2006 after the 2004 elections, making the search a little tricky.) Karen Minnis is the Director of The Speaker's PAC, and is a former director of Majority 2004. Wayne Scott is the current director of Majority 2006. They can direct money at their discretion, and they have a lot of money to spend.
In 2004, the tobacco companies contributed $22,000 to Majority 2004 and $15,000 to The Speakers' PAC. In 2006 the amount is $41,000 to The Speaker's PAC and $40,000 to Majority 2006. If these amounts are added to the individual campaign contributions it becomes clear that the tobacco lobby is one of the significant players in Oregon politics. There can be no question that Minnis knows who her friends are.
Majority 2006 and the Speakers' PAC exist to help elect Republican candidates. But with PACs supporting candidates with the PAC money controlled solely by the house leaders, these leaders can stack the deck and exert tremendous control over the rank and file representatives. It's kind of like Texas politics, Oregon style.
A review of campaign finance documents filed with the Secretary of State shows how closely these PACs are linked. The Speakers' PAC, Majority 2006 and the Minnis campaign committee, 'Friends of Karen Minnis' all have the same address and all have the same treasurer, Donna Butler. The payrolls are mixed, the consultants are the same, some money appears to go back and forth between the PAC's and sometimes the candidates they support are the same, such as Andy Olson.
Olson won his first term in 2004 as a house Republican representing portions of Benton and Linn counties. Olson owes much of his victory in that election to campaign contributions of $25,000 from The Speakers' PAC, $26,575 from Majority 2004, and a contribution of $7,000 directly from the Wayne Scott campaign committee coffers. Where do you think his loyalty lies? There are several other legislators who also owe much of their political lives to these two PACs, and consequently they also owe loyalty to the PAC directors.
Andy Olson was appointed to the 2005 House Revenue Committee as one of 5 Republicans comprising the majority on the nine-member committee. Because the Oregon Constitution specifies that revenue proposals must originate in the House of Representatives, this is the committee where taxes originate. Three of the other four Republicans on the committee were recipients of campaign contributions from tobacco companies in 2004. They were Vicki Berger, Brian Boquist and Sal Esquivel. The other Republican comprising the majority is the Revenue Committee Chairman, R. Tom Butler, appointed by Minnis. No Democrats on the committee received tobacco company donations.
This committee let die HB 2940 which effectively cut Oregon's tobacco tax by 10 cents per pack, making Oregon the only state to ever reduce tobacco taxes. Minnis should have been out front, using the bully pulpit of the Speakers office to jawbone and lead her party to allow this bill to be debated on the floor of the House of Representatives. She did not. The cigarette lobby is cheering.
By letting HB 2940 die in committee, the Oregon cigarette tax dropped from $1.28 per pack to $1.18. Based on the almost 193 million cigarette tax stamps sold by the state in 2005 (every pack has one on it), that comes to well over $19 million dollars in reduced revenues. This money was targeted for, "health benefits to children presumed eligible for the Oregon Heath Plan but not enrolled, prevention and prenatal care for uninsured women, health benefit coverage for uninsured persons with chronic or acute health needs, and for emergency grants to continue operations of school-based health centers, federally qualified health centers and rural health clinics."
While there are plenty of dots to connect between the cigarette lobby money and the demise of HB 2940, the fact is that the dots can't be connected and there can be no conclusion of wrong-doing. It's all a just a big coincidence. However, there can be the conclusion there was wrong-headed thinking. The American political system relies on corporate campaign contributions to legislators to a large extent, and the result is sometimes demagnification of the moral compass.
This 19 million in lost revenue could have freed up money in the budget for better school funding. Minnis led the fight for lower school funding to balance the budget at the close of the last legislative session. Is there really a choice to make between cheaper cigarettes or art and music teachers in elementary schools? In addition, one of the proven ways to reduce the incidence of smoking is to increase the price of a pack. How many kids started smoking after this tax cut? How many of them will become addicted and eventually wind up on the Oregon Health Plan with smoking related illnesses? The 19 million dollars in lost revenue is only the start.
If you want to know who are the friends of Karen Minnis, look at the campaign contributions. Prominent among her friends are big tobacco companies. It makes one wonder about Speaker Minnis and her priorities, and whether or not these priorities reflect Oregon values.