St. Paul, Minn. — The 2003 session was all about money. Or more accurately, the lack of it. Lawmakers spent most of their time erasing a projected $4.5 billion deficit, and most other issues got short shrift.
About three months into the session, right before the first deadline for bills to make it through a committee, a bill was introduced that would limit the amount of money a judge could order a company to post to appeal a court verdict. Tobacco companies wanted the legislation, because a judge had ordered Philip Morris to post $12 billion in a case in Illinois.
Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, said tobacco company lobbyists asked him to sponsor a bill that would cap appeal bonds at $25 million. Betzold said he agreed with them that current Minnesota law, which doesn't have a dollar limit on appeal bonds, is unfair.
"Whether you like the tobacco companies or you don't, and I've never voted in anything that helped them out, but if they have a bad judgment or a judgment they don't like, they should be allowed to appeal it," Betzold said.
Betzold said he was also concerned that if a tobacco company filed for bankruptcy because of a high jury award, Minnesota could lose some of the money it gets from the court settlement it reached with four cigarette makers. Under the state's 1998 settlement, Minnesota receives about $200 million a year as long as the tobacco companies are in business.
Betzold chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which held a hearing on his bill one day after he introduced it. Former U.S. Sen. Dean Barkley testified as a lobbyist for Lorillard Tobacco Company.
"I don't want to couch this as a tobacco bill," Barkley told the Judiciary Committee. "This is a fairness bill. I've also been a litigator and an attorney for 22 years, and quite frankly, Minnesota has one of the most stringent requirement for an appeal, with double the actual amount of damages."
Barkley wasn't the only tobacco lobbyist working on the appeal bond bill. Philip Morris hired nine lobbyists in April, in addition to the four already working for them. The cigarette maker spent nearly $180,000 on lobbying this year.
Philip Morris' parent company, Altria, also approached the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce to get the chamber's backing for the bill. The chamber is typically one of the top spenders on lobbying, and spent more than $340,000 to lobby the Legislature this year.
On the other side of the issue was the Minnesota Smoke Free Coalition, with one lobbyist, Jeremy Hanson. Hanson says he was clearly outgunned by the resources of the tobacco companies.
"They also have the ability to hire really good lobbyists, and really high-profile lobbyists," Hanson said. "And not every constituency group, not every special interest, can get a former U.S. senator to lobby on their behalf."
Hanson argued that the bill would allow tobacco companies to drag out appeals and avoid being held accountable for smoking-related damages. Hanson persuaded state Sen. Jane Ranum, DFL-Minneapolis. Ranum said capping appeal bonds would make it harder for people who've suffered injuries to collect any money.
"It's a delay tactic that will harm regular folks," Ranum said. "It's one more example of big money taking away rights of just ordinary citizens."
Ranum said she doesn't think most legislators knew much about the bill, and in particular, that it was backed by tobacco companies. Ranum held a hearing on the bill in her State Government Budget Division, but didn't take a vote.
I can have brilliant arguments, and I can articulate them well, but if there's somebody from their district who has a different view, that person is always going to have one up
Meantime, the bill moved through Betzold's committee, and was approved by the Senate Finance Committee, after it was amended to raise the cap to $100 million. The bill had already sailed through the Republican-controlled House.
Ranum urged Senate DFL leaders to stop the bill, and it never came up for a floor vote. Opponent Hanson says supporters of the bill simply ran out of time.
"One of the messages that we tried to make very clear to legislators is that, we didn't think that their constituents would be happy to know that in the final days of the legislative session, rather than dealing with the impending budget issues that they were passing a bill to protect the tobacco companies," Hanson said.
But Hanson considers last session a temporary victory. He worries that the big money behind the bill will prevail next year when the appeal bond cap will be back before lawmakers. Philip Morris plans to renew its push for the bill, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Golisch.
"Absolutely, we're going to continue to communicate our support for this issue, and continue to communicate why this is not only good for the business community, but also good for the state," Golisch said.
Philip Morris and the Minnesota Chamber are just two of the many interests that spend big dollars on lobbying. The top five spenders this year were Education Minnesota, Xcel Energy, the Coalition of Minnesota Working Families, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and the Minnesota Taxpayers League.
The amount of money spent to influence legislation has increased in recent years.
Hamline University professor David Schultz has been tracking political spending in Minnesota for six years. He says one of the biggest trends is the explosion of soft money, the unregulated contributions to political parties and legislative caucuses. Individuals and special interests spent more than $42 million of soft money on Minnesota politics last year.
Schultz says campaign finance reforms passed in 1993 eliminated free meals for legislators, so now the money goes behind the scenes to Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate.
"If you're a leader or you're a legislator, what would you rather have? Another rubber chicken to eat, or would you rather have a few hundred dollars that you can use to be able to run for a campaign or to give to somebody who needs help?" Schultz said. "You clearly would rather have the money than the unedible piece of chicken."
Schultz says money doesn't just buy access, it buys repeated access. He says anybody can get in once to see a legislator, but it takes money to have a constant presence at the Capitol.
Longtime lobbyists say as in the case of the appeal bond bill, money doesn't always buy results. The chamber's Bill Blazar, who's been coming to the Capitol for nearly three decades, says it often takes years to build support for legislation. Blazar says the so-called clout of the lobbyist is highly overrated.
"I can have brilliant arguments, and I can articulate them well, but if there's somebody from their district who has a different view, that person is always going to have one up, because the constituent votes," Blazar said. "I don't."
Blazar says grassroots lobbying has become much more effective in recent years. He says e-mail and the Internet allow people who can't come to the Capitol to get in touch with their legislators. Opponents of the appeal bond bill say their biggest advantage is public support, which they hope to mobilize next year. But if supporters of the bill use the same strategy they did this year, that grassroots effort will face off against hundreds of thousands of dollars and nearly two dozen professional lobbyists.