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    Fighting City Hall in the Northeast

    Maine doubles its cigarette tax, New York imposes new food safety measures and Vermont considers a payroll tax.

    Look both ways when it comes to methamphetamine legislation: Even if your state doesn't rule on it, the federal government might.

    "Here in Pennsylvania," noted Randy St. John, senior vice president of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association/Pennsylvania Convenience Store Council, "there is no immediate threat of meth legislation. We strongly support the Pennsylvania Attorney General's advocacy of a volunteer meth watch program, which we feel provides the best way to stop the illegal conversion of pseudoephedrine into meth.

    "But the U.S. Senate is now in the picture with its pending Talent-Feinstein bill that will require products containing pseudoephedrine to be sold only from behind pharmacist counters. We all know what that means," continued St. John, "since c-stores don't have pharmacies. There are some exceptions in the bill that will partially alleviate that problem, but we still feel that a voluntary program is best. It would be nice if Congress felt that way too."

    One area that Pennsylvania's c-stores need not worry about is a tax on cigars and smokeless tobacco products. It was threatened, but effective lobbying took that measure off the table.

    Meanwhile, up in Maine, the fact that two-thirds of the state's population lives along its southern border with New Hampshire would ordinarily raise hearts high, since New Hampshire folk are renowned for their congeniality and good looks. But unfortunately for Maine, New Hampshire possesses one attribute that could be classified more along the lines of a kick in the chops to Mainers than a blessing: low taxes.

    "The Maine legislature, in its wisdom, has decided to double our state cigarette tax from $1 to $2 a pack," observed Jamie Py, president of the Maine Oil Dealers association, "so now all the good people in Maine who live close to New Hampshire will have even greater incentive to buy their cigarettes there, since our cigarette tax will be $1.20 higher than theirs. And that's if New Hampshire's proposed increase to 80 cents a pack goes through. If it doesn't, our taxes will be $1.48 more per pack.

    "It's not as if New Hampshire doesn't already sing a siren song of lower gasoline and alcohol taxes -- we've sort of adjusted to that -- but this new cigarette tax of ours just adds to the temptation to cross state lines.”

    Elsewhere in Maine, John Melrose, executive director of the Maine Grocers Association, reported, “While new taxes on beer, wine and soda were fought off, and the return of the snack tax was successfully prevented, there is no force in the universe strong enough to keep a state legislature from levying taxes when confronted with budgetary problems. As a result, in addition to the rise in cigarette taxes, the milk-handling fee that was dropped in the late '90s goes back into effect when the hundred-weight price drops below $18 -- which many feel is inevitable before the end of the year.

    "And on the methamphetamine front,” Melrose added, “the legislature decided to tackle the problem by requiring all pseudoephedrine products except single-serves and those in gel and liquid form to be stored behind pharmacy counters. The one silver lining is that the permitted forms will see most c-stores through since they usually don't carry ephedrine products in bulk."

    In New York, they're having one of those tricky situations in which the industry agrees with a concept, but not with how the state legislature is implementing it.

    The subject is food safety.

    The state is considering a regulation that would require one employee of each store licensed by Agriculture and Markets to complete eight hours of food safety training over a two-year period, which the New York Association of Convenience Stores (NYACS) fully supports.

    But NYACS objects to two features of the bill: the exemption given to stores with less than $3 million in inside sales unless they're part of a chain or franchise, and the permission given to chains of 10 stores or more to do their own in-house training.

    “Exemption should be based on the risk of food-borne illness, not store ownership or size,” said Andrea Baker, a NYACS board member and general manager of the six-store Taylor Mini Mart chain based in Cooperstown, N.Y. “And the 10-store requirement is grossly unfair to smaller chains, which forces them to rely on third parties, resulting in minimum control over costs and schedules. The privilege of in-house training should be offered to all retailers or none.”

    The bill has passed both the state Senate and House and is likely to be signed into law, with a one-year implementation period.

    In the meantime, for NYACS members who want to let off steam and have a good time while they're at it, NYACS president James Calvin reminds them of the “NYACS Day at the Races” being held Aug. 18 at the Saratoga Race Course and the annual “NYACS Fall Conference” Sept. 21-22 in Corning, N.Y., which includes the “Chairman's Open Golf” tournament. Golfers get off to a shotgun start at 8:30 am on the 22nd, while non-golfers have the opportunity to enjoy a sightseeing and winery tour. Call (800) 336-9227 for details on both events.

    Finally, Vermont, with one of the most comprehensive healthcare programs in the nation, ran head-on into a veto by the governor when its legislature imposed a payroll tax to cover those still outside the tent, a tax that would have had a severe impact on Vermont's c-store operators.

    "We opposed the payroll tax," said Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Grocers Association, "because, among other things, employers with part-time employees would have been hit especially hard, and many of our members fall into that category."

    Presently, the state's program is financed by premiums, rather than a tax.

    "We're looking forward to a new approach to the problem when the state's Commission on Health Care Reform meets during the summer and fall," said Harrison.

    Among the commission's goals are the reorganization of the healthcare delivery system, an improvement in the quality of care and a reduction in medical errors.

    All, Harrison hopes, without the need for a payroll tax.

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