Cigarette makers and their parent companies have contributed more than $178,000 to Alabama lawmakers in recent years — in direct contributions and through political action committees — but most legislators say the donations don’t sway them when it comes to tobacco legislation, including proposed tax increases.
“I have received contributions from tobacco makers ever since I’ve been in office,” said Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville. “It doesn’t influence my vote.”
A $1 per-pack tax increase was proposed by Rep. Joe Hubbard, D-Montgomery, this past legislative session as a way to help shore up the ailing state budget. At 42.5 cents per pack, Alabama has one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the country.
But the bill did not make it out of committee, mainly because Republicans control the Legislature and lawmakers fed off Republican Gov. Robert Bentley’s pledge not to raise taxes. Republican leadership, however, says a cigarette tax increase is a possibility in the future, especially as the state grapples with continued budget shortfalls.
In the meantime, cigarette makers against any such tax increases most likely will continue to make contributions to lawmakers.
According to campaign finance reports and information from Altria Group, Philip Morris’ parent company, about $59,000, most of it in $500 increments, was donated to Republican and Democratic incumbents and candidates for state office in Alabama in 2009. In 2010, an election year, the number was about $45,500.
“I am not at all saying that (with) this bill that the legislators who did not support it did so because of Philip Morris,” said Hubbard, a freshman lawmaker who said he was never offered contributions from a tobacco company. “But I am cognizant that campaign dollars do play into policy decisions. To say it is not a factor is naïve. Is it the only factor? No. But it is a factor.”
Though the $500 donations are small when compared to the hundreds of thousands some lawmakers receive in a given year, Hubbard said their meaning is significant.
“These contributions have certainly given the impression to lawmakers in the Alabama Legislature that cigarette companies have money to spend,” he said. “And the knowledge that they have money to spend creates the impression that that money can be spent on behalf of a candidate or against a candidate.”
Altria made four donations in 2009 and 2010 totaling $55,500 to a political action committee belonging to the Republican State Leadership Committee. Reynolds American, parent company of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., also donated $16,500 to the same PAC in 2010.
Altria donated $10,000 in late 2011 to Alabama 2014 PAC, which is run by former Republican Gov. Bob Riley.
Republicans say the real reason Hubbard’s bill didn’t pass was because of Bentley’s pledge to voters in 2010 not to raise taxes, a pledge he repeated much of this past legislative session.
“While there was some support, and some opposition (to a cigarette tax increase), the governor made it very clear that he was going to veto any tax hikes,” said Todd Stacy, a spokesman for Alabama Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn. “It was dead on arrival.”
Mike Hubbard was chairman of the Alabama Republican Party in 2010, which received money, along with some GOP-run PACs, from the Republican State Leadership Committee PAC.
But contributions don’t buy loyalty, Stacy said.
“When an individual or business contributes to a campaign or organization, it means they are subscribing to that candidate’s philosophy, not the other way around,” Stacy said.
On its website, Altria said it considers several factors when making contributions to politicians, including whether or not it has facilities in the state, whether it conducts business in the state and “the candidate serves on a legislative committee with jurisdiction over issues of interest to Altria; the recipient understands the legislative and regulatory issues related to Altria’s businesses; and the candidate is a member of congressional or state legislative leadership.”
Altria spokesman David Sutton said his company has lobbied against tax increases, but not against a bill that would restrict smoking in public places.
There are more than 1,200 PACs registered on the Alabama Secretary of State’s website. Information on others that received tobacco company donations was not immediately available.
Altria did not respond to questions about any other PAC donations it had made.
Contributions from corporations and associations make up a large part, often the largest part, of candidates’ campaign coffers.
William Stewart, retired professor emeritus in political science at the University of Alabama, said the contributions from cigarette makers are no more a conflict of interest than those from the Alabama Education Association when lawmakers vote on teachers’ salaries.
“Five hundred dollars is probably not enough to bribe a lawmaker,” he said. “It is a drop in the bucket in their overall campaign, but it does make a favorable impression.”
Corporate contributions are just part of the political system, he said.
“As long as we don’t have public funding of campaigns, we will have perceptions of conflicts of interest, however real or imagined they might be,” Stewart said.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee, said tobacco companies’ contributions, which he has received, have never been a part of any conversation, or vote, he’s had. And, a cigarette tax increase is still an option. “Is it on the table, absolutely,” he said.
And it’s an option even if the voters in September approve the transfer of about $441 million from the state’s savings account to its General Fund during the next three fiscal years.
“We are going to continue to have a problem with the General Fund,” Orr said about the fund that pays for most of the state’s non-education related agencies. “Without growth coming into the General Fund, we are going to have to look at alternatives.”
Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, said he would at least consider a cigarette tax if voters in September reject the constitutional amendment.
“If people vote the amendment down, we are going to have to do something,” said Greer, who has received tobacco company contributions. “You can’t just shut down Medicaid.”
Bedford said he would support a cigarette tax hike if the revenue was earmarked for Medicaid or other health services.
Meanwhile, Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, said she plans to bring back in 2012 the cigarette tax increase bill she’s been pitching since 2008, when Democrats still controlled the Legislature. Todd received $500 from Philip Morris in 2009.
Mary Sell is the Montgomery Bureau Chief for the TimesDaily. She can be reached at mary.sell@TimesDaily.com.