The tobacco industry spent at least $486,000 trying to influence Minnesota politics and government in 2016 and the first part of 2017, according to documents filed with Attorney General Lori Swanson and obtained by the Star Tribune.
The Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a GOP-aligned group, received $100,000 from Philip Morris -- maker of the Marlboro cigarette brand -- during the period ending March 1 of this year, according to the documents. An affiliate group, Minnesota Jobs Coalition Legislative Fund, spent heavily to help elect Republicans to the Legislature last year.
John Rouleau, a spokesman for the Jobs Coalition, released a statement: "Unlike Minnesota Democrats and their liberal allies, we don't have a human ATM like big oil heiress Alida Messinger who bankrolled liberals with more than $2 million over the past two years," he said. Rouleau emphasized that the Jobs Coalition does not lobby and has a broad coalition of donors who seek to "further policies that lead to job creation and a better economic future for Minnesotans."
The disclosures -- a requirement of the 1998 tobacco litigation settlement with the state of Minnesota -- come as lawmakers are considering an end to an automatic, annual tax increase on cigarettes enacted in 2013. The bill is included in a major tax package that passed the Minnesota House but still needs approval from the full Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton. Because in the long term it would reduce the price of cigarettes, the proposal is widely viewed as favorable to tobacco companies because studies have shown a correlation between higher prices and lower demand for cigarettes, especially among young people.
A similar measure passed both chambers of the Legislature last year, but Dayton vetoed the bill over an unrelated matter.
The industry is again spending heavily to influence the Legislature. RAI services, maker of the Camel and Newport brands of cigarettes, paid prominent lobbyist Ron Jerich nearly $150,000 during the period, while Philip Morris paid Hill Capitol Strategies $109,000 last year and the first part of this year, with another $52,000 for a subcontractor. Messerli & Kramer, a law and lobbying firm, and Ward Einess were also major lobbying recipients of tobacco money.
Minnesota Action Network, a group with ties to former Sen. Norm Coleman and widely credited with helping the GOP take the Minnesota Senate majority in 2016, received $20,000 from Philip Morris.
Both Philip Morris and Reynolds are major donors to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and the Republican State Leadership Committee, which in turn funnel money into statehouse races around the country, including Minnesota.
Anne Mason Yoder, a spokeswoman for anti-smoking group ClearWay Minnesota, said the tobacco spending is no surprise: "They support measures to keep their current customers and recruit new ones. This has always been true in Minnesota. And keep in mind that their products, if used as intended, will kill more than half their users."