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DAVID ROSMAN: Legislators' e-cigarettes votes expose influence of big business

Wednesday, July 30, 2014 | 5:04 p.m. CDT

The Calebs are in hot water.

Gov. Jay Nixon has veto power, and he used it a record number of times this past legislative session. One of those vetoes was a bill that would have exempted electronic cigarettes, alternative nicotine products and vapor products from taxation and most state regulation.

This in itself would have been newsworthy. But there is more.

State Reps. Caleb Jones, R-Columbia, and Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, both received donations from the tobacco industry, more specifically the RAI Services Co., the political arm of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

Which leads to the question: Were their votes bought? Maybe not, but the suspicions certainly do not bode well for either legislator.

The story is fairly short. Jones received a contribution to his political campaign on April 23 but did not post the check until May 23, one week after the legislative session was over.

He claims that he had not gone to his post office box in California, Mo., during that one-month interim period. There is no reason not to believe him. Really.

But the perception that he accepted the money after he voted for a bill that would exempt e-cigarettes from state regulation and taxes is palpable.

Then there is Mr. Rowden’s situation. Rowden was the originating sponsor of House Bill 1690 and received a $1,000 check from RAI Services Co. on May 12, the day the law was passed and forwarded to the governor’s office.

The bill would allow sales to those 18 and older but would not tax the alternative nicotine and vapor products sold within the state. That would lower the cost of the e-cigarette, where it would be an affordable alternative to cigarettes and other tobacco products in Missouri.

The problem is that R.J. Reynolds is getting into the e-cigarette business with a product called Vuse.

According to the Columbia Daily Tribune, R.J. Reynolds has donated more than $58,000 to Republican members of our legislature.

Is the perception problem clearer now?

Regardless of the outcomes of next week’s elections, I believe the Democrats will use the perceptions as a tool against the Republican incumbents. After all, big business now holds the upper hand.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch suggests that a strong campaign ethics bill would have resolved this problem, but I have my doubts. Ill-timed corporate and private money  would continue to stoke the fires of an opposition campaign.

To top off the RJR/Missouri GOP connection, RAI Services Co. donated some $25,000 to Sen. Kurt Schaefer’s campaign for attorney general. The A.G.’s office is responsible for the current tobacco settlement.

Schaefer said he was not aware of the donation. I can see the eyes rolling now.

In a time when the residents of this state are becoming more aware of the negative effects of tobacco products, the idea of the tobacco industry funding election campaigns will continue to add salt to a wound that is slowly festering.

As the Missouri GOP continues its move to the right, as voters become more disgusted with big business running the campaigns with unlimited dollars, the GOP could begin to lose its stronghold on the two houses under the Gray Dome.

I am a nonsmoker, but I know a number of people who are now using the alternative products. They will tell you that these are being used in place of a traditional cigarette, but the nicotine, though reduced, is still there. They will also tell you that they do not know what other chemicals are in the e-cigarettes and vapor products.

Maybe the Post-Dispatch is correct. Maybe we need a strong ethics law in this state to at least slow the perception of corporations' buying votes. But as long as the GOP maintains a stronghold on the legislative process, these issues will continue.

Yes, the important vote will not take place until November, but the August vote will be telling.

Nationally, ABC News estimates that less than 15 percent of registered voters will make it to the polls. We have some very important issues to decide, and your vote is more important than ever next week.

More important is that your vote next week will translate to your vote in November, and that is when we can say enough is enough and tell big business that it no longer controls our legislative process.

David Rosman is an editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. You can read more of his commentaries at ColumbiaMissourian.com and InkandVoice.com and New York Journal of Books.com.


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