Lobbyists spent record dollars in '10

TOPEKA — A successful effort to prevent a new tax in Kansas on soda and other sugary drinks pushed corporate and interest group spending on lobbying state government to a record $1.41 million last year, a new report showed Wednesday.

Figures compiled by the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission show that lobbyists' spending jumped 20 percent in 2010, compared to 2009, fueled by media advertising campaigns on issues such as the proposed soda tax and successful legislation to ban smoking in most public places.

The American Beverage Association was by far the leader, reporting spending of almost $394,000, most of it on a radio and newspaper advertising campaign in April designed to build public opposition to imposing the new soda tax to help balance the state budget.

Dozens of employees of soft-drink bottling companies converged on the Statehouse in late April as legislators worked on their final budget proposals of the year. The soda tax surfaced briefly as a possibility in the Senate but never cleared committee.

"What we were doing is reacting to the situation we found ourselves in," said Chris Gindlesperger, spokesman for the association. "Our goal is to inform lawmakers and consumers about the impact."

The previous record for lobbyist spending in Kansas was $1.33 million, set in 2008. The figure for 2009 was about $1.18 million, and spending rose about $235,000 in 2010.

The figures don't include lobbyists' salaries or administrative expenses, or travel and lodging expenses that companies and groups incur to bring lobbyists to Topeka. The state has never required those items to be disclosed, meaning reports compiled by the ethics commission probably underestimate total spending.

Media advertising and other communications campaigns, such as groups contacting their members to pressure legislators, accounted for two-thirds of the total reported spending last year, or nearly $939,000. And 96 percent of those expenditures were made by only nine groups or companies, all among the leaders in lobbyist spending.

Carol Williams, the ethics commission's executive director, said issues such as the proposed soda tax and smoking ban lent themselves to such campaigns because, "These affected people at large."

The soda tax proposal would have imposed a penny-per-teaspoon tax on sugar in canned and bottled beverages, raising an estimated $90 million a year for government programs.

Legislative researchers said it would have increased the cost of a 12-ounce can of soda by 10 cents. Beverage industry officials said a 2-liter bottle would have cost 56 cents more and that the levy on some products could have amounted to 50 percent.

The tax would have applied to packaged sweetened, nonalcoholic beverages, including soda, root beer, ginger ale, lemon-lime drinks and beverages that were 10 percent or less "natural" fruit or vegetable juice.

The tax had the support of public health advocates, who saw it as a way to help fight obesity, particularly in children. Last year, a study funded in part by the federal government said small taxes do little to reduce consumption but suggested high taxes might, a conclusion the American Beverage Association questioned.

Sen. John Vratil, a Leawood Republican and the main sponsor of the proposed soda tax, found the amount of spending reported by the association on lobbying in Kansas "staggering."

"I just wish they'd spent $390,000 in preventing obesity. We'd all be better off," he said. "I think there will continue to be proposals into the future to try to fight obesity, and a tax on sugary drinks is just one way to do that."

But Gindlesperger said in tough economic times, "People don't want to pay more for their grocery items."

The proposed smoking ban inspired dueling media and communications campaigns by the American Cancer Society and the parent company of tobacco company Philip Morris.

The firm affiliated with Philip Morris, Altria Client Services Inc., reported spending about $151,000, almost all of it on media and communications. The cancer society reported expenditures of more than $104,000.

The record for annual reported spending by a single company or group is almost $406,000, set in 2007 by Know Your Power Kansas, a group that opposed construction of a new coal-fired power plant in southwest Kansas. It spent the money on advertising late that year, after the state's top environmental regulator blocked a coal-fired project and legislators were critical.