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By Hank Behar
NEW YORK -- New Hampshire Grocers Association looks over 1300 Bills of Intent as it gets ready for the state's legislative session in January, while Maine celebrates the defeat of a cigarette tax boost. New York has a full agenda of issues to pursue, as Connecticut mounts a campaign to close an "Enron" energy loophole.
The leaves are aflame with vibrant color this time of year in New Hampshire and the New Hampshire Grocers Association (NHGA) is afire with activity.
That's because more than 500 Bills of Intent have been filed for the legislative session in January, with almost 800 more anticipated, so the NHGA's Legislative Committee is holding weekly discussion to focus on the ones that pertain to food store and petroleum issues.
Meanwhile, another State House committee is reviewing all aspects of the NH State Liquor Commission. In more than two days of testimony, John Dumais, president and CEO of NHGA, reviewed, criticized and praised the Commission's wholesaling, marketing, licensing, enforcement procedures, as well as management of its state-owned liquor stores, looking for changes to introduce in the next session.
Within the agency, NHGA has also participated in a dialog with the Enforcement Division to streamline the Liquor Commission’s procedures for compliance checks and food store regulations.
NHGA is also working with officials of the state's Weights and Measures Division to draft legislation correcting procedures for random weight price labels when they're part of a customer requested order.
Heartening news comes from Maine, where a proposed cigarette tax boost of $1 a pack was defeated in the state legislature, even though the governor and several lobbying groups fought to get it passed.
"It was our own grassroots effort that won the day for us," noted Jamie Py, president of the Maine Oil Dealers Association (MODA). "Working under the banner of the Convenience Store Council of Maine, we had moms-and-pops and national and regional chains come together to form a powerful coalition that the legislators in Augusta just couldn't ignore.
"We also had some irrefutable arguments in our favor," added Py, citing the fact neighboring New Hampshire's advantage of $1.20 a pack in lower taxes would increase to $2.20 a pack, which in turn would further decrease the revenue already lost to Maine by smokers going elsewhere for their cigarettes. There's also the inevitable increase in counterfeiting that would result, as experienced by other states, and the equally inevitable increase in the migration to the Internet for cigarette purchases.
"The tax would have had the opposite effect its proponents claimed for it, so we're all better off that it didn't pass. But, we have to stay with it because it will surely come up again. The drive for ever higher cigarette taxes will probably never go away."
The New York Association of Convenience Stores (NYACS), always a forceful voice representing more than 1,500 store locations in the Empire State, serving nearly 1.3 million customers daily, has a full plate of advocacies these days. Here are some of the issues it is actively engaged in:
-- Stronger enforcement of the state law mandating collection of taxes on Indian sales of tobacco and motor fuels to non-Indian New Yorkers. Said Jim Calvin, NY ACS president: "NY ACS will use every legal, legislative and other tools available to attain a level playing field the law was designed to restore."
-- Increasing the commission rate paid to lottery retailers from 6 to 8 percent, to reflect the sharply higher merchant costs of selling lottery games. The 6-percent rate has been in effect for more than 30 years.
-- Suspending the licenses of pump-and-run offenders, whose number has increased along with the increase in gasoline prices. Twenty-five states already impose this penalty, which is more severe than the punishment presently mandated in New York State. NY ACS also advocates updating the bar code on driver's licenses so that a cash customer can activate a pump without the inconvenience of prepaying inside the store.
-- Uncoupling the suspension of lottery and tobacco licenses, when a retailer's tobacco license is suspended for an underage sale. Presently, both licenses are lost in that event, for which there is no justification, since the licenses have separate rules, agencies and enforcement procedures.
With a battle cry to "Call Congress Today," the Independent Connecticut Petroleum Association (ICPA) is mounting a campaign to get Congressional approval of the "Close the Enron Loophole Act" (known as S2058).
The Act's objective is to prevent energy price manipulation by requiring government oversight of commodities trading in the energy market by large traders.
Presently, such trading is exempted from oversight, but as the hedge fund Amaranth Advisors demonstrated in the natural gas market last year, the Enron loophole makes it possible for traders to distort energy prices through large trades on unregulated exchanges.
"Everyone remembers how Enron manipulated the California electricity market through unregulated trades," recalled Gene Guilford, executive director and CEO of ICPA. "We don't want that happening again --especially in Connecticut -- so we're distributing bill stuffers free to any of the 520 Connecticut-based companies in our association who asks for them-bill stuffers that urge consumers to Call Congress Today."
The stuffers give the phone numbers and addresses of the seven congressmen and senators representing Connecticut in Washington.
The stuffers can be obtained by contacting Guilford at [email protected] or calling toll-free (866) 521-ICPA. So far, 40,000 have been ordered by retailers who attended the recently completed chapter meetings of the ICPA.