Tobacco cash wafts widely, is hard to track

by Dan Morain, Sacramento Bee

Like grifters operating games of three-card monte, slick political consultants and lawyers can move money in ways that we mere mortal voters never will spot.

But for kicks, let’s try to track some of the cash that is flowing this year from one heavyweight contributor, Altria, also known as Philip Morris, the world’s largest cigarette company.

Philip Morris has given $31.3 million of the $44 million raised by the tobacco industry to defeat Proposition 29, the initiative on Tuesday’s ballot to raise tobacco taxes by $1 per pack to fund cancer research and anti-smoking efforts.

Philip Morris also is a big donor to legislative races, though generally not directly. Aware that some voters frown on tobacco money, some candidates hesitate to accept industy donations. So tobacco companies funnel much of their money through independent campaign committees, which can raise and spend unlimited sums.

A favorite is the California Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee, Jobs PAC. In the 2011-12 election cycle, Philip Morris has given $109,500 to Jobs PAC, second only to Chevron Oil’s $435,000. Jobs PAC, in turn, spends money for and against Democratic and Republican candidates who are viewed as business-friendly moderates, campaign finance reports show.

Here’s where the money gets a little harder to follow.

Jobs PAC reports it has given $255,000 to a separate committee called California Now, though it has nothing to do with the California chapter of the National Organization for Women. Rather, this California Now is funded by big business and trade groups such as the California Association of Realtors, Chevron, and Philip Morris, which has given it $150,000.

California Now has been sending mailers supporting and opposing candidates in several races. Making the money harder to track, California Now has given $506,630 to a third political action committee, benignly named California Senior Advocates League.

Whether this group advocates on behalf of senior citizens is debatable. But it definitely doesn’t advocate for politicians who are viewed as being liberal. Its money supports more conservative candidates in races where it’s involved.

For an added level of complexity, California Now has given $70,000 to yet another campaign committee, Small Business Action PAC. Small Business Action is a campaign committee run by Joel Fox, a past president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and a longtime anti-tax advocate.

On television commercials and in other campaign material, the tobacco industry prominently lists the Small Business Action Committee as opposing Proposition 29.

Fox’s business may be small, but it has gotten in on Big Tobacco’s action, accepting $500,000 from Philip Morris’ parent, Altria, in 2010, and $16,478 from the No on 29 campaign this year. That will cover the cost of slate cards opposing Proposition 29 targeted to Fox’s list of anti-tax voters.

"I have a 30-year track record on the tax issue," said Fox, who publishes Fox and Hounds blog, where he has written critically of Proposition 29, warning that if voters approve the tobacco tax, targeted taxes on soda, mattresses and other products could follow.

Another major recipient of tobacco money is the California Republican Party. Tobacco companies including Philip Morris gave the party $945,000 this year. The GOP has performed services for the tobacco companies valued at $1.14 million, including a mailing to party members parroting No on 29 arguments.

In a statement, Philip Morris noted that it follows all disclosure laws, and believes "participation in the political, legislative, and regulatory processes ‘ at all levels of government ‘ is vital to our businesses and to our democracy.

"As such, we actively advocate on policy issues relevant to our companies by engaging responsibly with government officials, retailers, wholesalers, suppliers, consumers, employees, and many other stakeholders."

One relevant issue is taxation.

Health experts estimate that a $1- per-pack tax hike would drive down cigarette purchases by 20 percent. Health advocates turned to the ballot to raise tobacco taxes, knowing that the industry has a lock on the Legislature, where it takes a two-thirds vote to approve a tax hike.

Lawmakers haven’t approved a tobacco tax increase since 1993. That was 2 cents to help fund breast cancer research. Over the years, the tobacco industry has successfully blocked tobacco tax hikes in the Legislature more than 30 times.

At least 20 of the 40 sitting state senators, including 14 Republicans and six Democrats, have taken tobacco donations over the years. In the Assembly, 36 of 80 members, including 25 Republicans and 11 Democrats, have accepted tobacco money. Many other legislators have benefited from tobacco money indirectly, or worry about the industry’s wrath if they were to vote for a tax hike.

Voters will never see how that money is being shifted and spent, given the industry’s sleight of hands.