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Lobbyist, 86, puts his thumbprint on laws
Long hours, personal relationships are calling cards for A-B’s longtime go-to guy.
The above was the below-the-fold headline in Sunday’s front page St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper. There followed a lengthy story on lobbyist John Britton, who has very effectively represented both tobacco and alcohol interests in the Missouri State Capitol for over 50 years, according to the article. “Britton is a recovering alcoholic (who) quit drinking in 1958,” but is still a chain smoker, having cut down to only three packs a day from five, according to Britton. (So maybe the smoking restrictions in many parts of the State Capitol have actually helped him!).
St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist, Bill McClellan, wrote an insightful piece about John Britton’s effectiveness in the State Capitol some years ago titled: “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Sir Lobbyist” which was featured in a mogasp blog Columnist Bill McClellan on tobacco lobbyist John Britton, aka “Mayor of Jefferson City”
Reporter Virginia Young’s article can be found on-line by clicking on the title below, following which are extensive excerpts from the article and also some of the on-line reader comments.
BY VIRGINIA YOUNG email@example.com > 573-635-6178 | Posted: Saturday, December 31, 2011 11:15 am | Comments (17 as of January 2, 2012, 6:10 pm)
JEFFERSON CITY • John Britton came to the Missouri Capitol to start a lobbying career more than a half-century ago. He has been walking the marble halls ever since, building a reputation as one of the most influential figures in Jefferson City.
Just ask those who have tried for decades to raise beer taxes. Or those who want Missouri to join the 39 states that prohibit open containers of alcoholic beverages in cars. Or those who have fought for years for statewide restrictions on smoking in public places.
All point to Britton, the chain-smoking lobbyist for Anheuser-Busch InBev, as the main reason for their defeats. In one such testament, Michael Boland, a volunteer lobbyist for nearly 20 years for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, was ready to rejoice when contacted for an interview about Britton. Boland hoped Britton was retiring “and we could finally get some legislation passed.”
But Britton, 86, is not retiring.
….. During the legislative session that begins this week, he’ll be back in his usual spot on the Capitol’s third floor, buttonholing legislators who weren’t born when he began manipulating the gears of government.
With his custom suits, an ever-present cigarette dangling from his mouth and the ability to supply a case of beer when a legislator asks, Britton fits the image of a glad-handing, well-heeled lobbyist.
Not only has he long carried the banner for liquor and tobacco interests, he was also the force behind the 1991 law that led to legalized riverboat gambling.
But beyond the caricature, Britton personifies the nuts and bolts of the influence business: He puts in marathon hours, cultivates personal relationships and knows his issues.
His detractors say he is a leading example of the outsize influence lobbyists have. And, they contend, he has played a key role in squashing opportunities to improve public health and safety.
Britton argues that he has defended individual liberties and tried to keep government from overreaching.
“How an individual lives his life is up to that individual, as long as he’s within the boundaries of civilized conduct,” he said. “And there’s nothing sinister in somebody drinking or smoking or bouncing rubber balls against the courthouse walls.“
[mogasp comment: None of the above are sinister, so long as it doesn’t put someone else’s health and safety at risk. The line is crossed when you drink and drive, or subject others to your secondhand smoke.]
…. Britton is a recovering alcoholic. He quit drinking in 1958 and still goes to two Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week.
….. He still lobbies for corporate heavyweights such as Enterprise Holdings Inc. and Express Scripts, as well as nonprofits such as the Missouri Historical Society and the St. Louis Zoo.
His far-flung clients include the movie industry, public television stations, beer wholesalers, life insurance underwriters, electric cooperatives, title companies, and the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co.
“I don’t think they stick with him because of loyalty,” said lobbyist and former legislator Jewell Patek. “They stick with him because he gets results.”
…. He splits the workload with three associates, including longtime business partner Jennifer Durham. Usually operating behind the scenes, they seek sponsors and friendly committees for bills they support and line up opposition and killer amendments for bills they oppose.
…. He was so tight with the Senate’s leadership in 1995 that after smoking was banned in Capitol corridors, the Senate passed a resolution declaring whatever area Britton inhabited on that side of the building a smoking zone. Senators said it was meant as a joke.
[mogasp comment: This was former Sen. Danny Staples’ resolution, but to my knowledge it was serious, and not intended as a joke.]
…. These days, when he takes legislators out … (h)e likes to host a small band of freshman Democrats, such as Steve Webber of Columbia and Jacob Hummel of St. Louis, at a down-home restaurant in nearby Apache Flats. In addition to saving money, he avoids Jefferson City’s ban on restaurant smoking.
Because of his lobbying reputation, Britton gets credit — or blame — for the Legislature’s perennial shelving of legislation to make public places in Missouri smoke-free.
“He’s been the major reason” that legislators balk at the bills, said Martin Pion, whose group, Missouri GASP, has warned of the dangers of secondhand smoke.
Critics like Pion say Britton’s legacy is a state that has neglected public health. Take the failed 1997 push to increase taxes by about a penny for every 12 ounces of beer to fund prevention and treatment of alcohol abuse.
“A penny a drink was never going to affect the profits of Mr. Britton’s clients, but it would help to prevent drunk driving,” said Boland, the volunteer for MADD.
Britton says he’s proud of keeping Missouri’s excise tax on beer the second-lowest in the nation, as well as abolishing the state’s blue laws and getting rid of the law making public intoxication a crime.
Below are many of the comments posted by readers following publication of the above article by reporter Virginia Young:
Marley said on: January 3, 2012, 3:36 pm
In the name of individual freedoms, Mr. Britton has certainly got his. He is a wealthy man at the expense of both the physical health of the citizens of Missouri and the financial health of the State itself. Missouri’s resources for substance abuse and addiction prevention and treatment have been greatly reduced by his efforts to keep increased excise fees on alcohol and tobacco off the table. He is only a hero of big business and greed, not at all of the people. Furthermore, our Missouri legislators should be ashamed of how they have bowed to the alcohol and tobacco industries. Britton has made fools of them, and he is laughing all the way to the bank.
SPSLE said on: January 2, 2012, 6:10 pm
Mr. Pion, and some of the ignorant, but pius commenters, you can blame John Britton for the failure to pass anti-smoking legislation if you want, but if you check the Missouri Ethics web site, you might discover that he has not represented any tobacco interest for ten years (Virginia, you might have wanted to note that, too). Maybe the problem is the proponents and their approach rather than the opponents.
[mogasp comment: I believe the above is correct, given that I wasn’t contacted for this story, so I didn’t comment on John Britton’s present lobbying activities. But he has certainly been very effective in the past, and the tobacco lobby and its supporters are still a force to be reckoned with in Jefferson City.]
follow the money said on: January 2, 2012, 9:48 am
Who would have known that Missouri has its own Jack Abramoff & Grover Norquist & the most gutless state government that cannot stand up to this agent of corporate America.
Tony Palazzolo said on: January 2, 2012, 8:03 am
Martin Pion isn’t a paid lobbyist unlike a majority of the anti-tobacco crowd.
harleyrider1978 said on: January 2, 2012, 7:49 am
I have never ever run across anyone who closely resembles my own american ideals as that of Mr. Britton.
I must say we were born of the same mold…..I admire the man.
mntvernon said on: January 2, 2012, 2:57 am
CGatton said on: January 1, 2012, 9:11 pm
Anono2, you charge that Martin Pion is paid to lobby for bans. Your source, please? John Britton is clearly paid to lobby against them, claiming that personal freedom trumps damaging other people’s health. I’m sure you’ll claim that the lady in this article from Enid, Oklahoma is also paid to lobby for bans.
Gatton, the proof is right there on Pions website where he clearly states he operates under 501(c)(4) IRS protection and panhandles the public:
for cash via credit card! Prove us wrong, just have Mr. Pion publish MOGASPs IRS form 990 from the past ten years.
The OK woman’s misfortune illustrates how despised your ‘church lady’ types are as they troll the oncology clinics looking find fresh victims of your favorite bogeyman.
The sad fact is that you get peanuts spewing your pap while your morebirthdays handlers get richer:
[mogasp comment: mntvernon later retracted his incorrect statement about MoGASP’s IRS status. We are, in fact, a 501(c)(3) and have been since our initial IRS approval in 1986. We’ve never had enough income to have to publish anything!]
Bill Hannegan said on: January 2, 2012, 2:35 am
anono2, I don’t think Martin Pion is paid to lobby for bans. Mr. Pion is a True Believer. Even if MOGASP has gotten Big Pharma grant money at some point ( and I doubt that he has), I am sure that his crusade for smoking bans overall has cost him far, far more than he has gained.
Bigdognaj said on: January 1, 2012, 11:10 pm
This guy needs to fade away for the greater good. This clown might be the single greatest reason Missouri remains in the dark ages. Smoke all you want outside away from me and my family. Die slowly from emphysema, cancer. Die quickly from not wearing a seat belt. Pick your personal freedom poison, hoosiers.
CGatton said on: January 1, 2012, 9:11 pm
Anono2, you charge that Martin Pion is paid to lobby for bans. Your source, please? John Britton is clearly paid to lobby against them, claiming that personal freedom trumps damaging other people’s health. I’m sure you’ll claim that the lady in this article from Enid, Oklahoma is also paid to lobby for bans: http://enidnews.com/localnews/x191085309/Despite-healthy-lifestyle-Elaine-Johns-began-experiencing-health-problems-due-to-second-hand-smoke-exposure
icantthinkofone said on: January 1, 2012, 8:34 pm
Why this is legal, and why this guy isn’t in jail, is beyond me. Yes, I know lobbyists are everywhere and it’s been around for decades but, why this is legal and why this guy isn’t in jail is beyond me.
[mogasp comment: I don’t think that’s the issue. Lobbyists are part of the political system. You and I can lobby for something in which we believe. Money is part of the problem, plus lobbyists working against the public interest.]
workingdude said on: December 31, 2011, 8:51 pm
violates personal freedom??? what about the folks who don’t smoke? bull. he is a prostitute. lobbyist or what-ever. he needs to be run out of every office he steps in. personal liberty? so you can do what-ever you want , when you want, and screw whoever you make mad. yeah, right. he nneds to go as does his ilk.
SPSLE said on: December 31, 2011, 6:14 pm
What Virginia omits in “ex-Army paratrooper” is the minor detail that he was with the 101st Airborne from the time they dropped behind enemy lines on D-Day through their encirclement as Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. For those who blindly despise lobbyists as representing “special interests”, they will never be capable of understanding that Mr. Britton’s primary “client” is personal liberty.
[mogasp comment: I think you’re letting the clouds of tobacco smoke obscure the truth. Mr. Britton does this lobbying because it’s highly profitable, NOT for any patriotic reasons.]
anono2 said on: December 31, 2011, 5:13 pm
First, thank you for your service to our country, John!!!
It is refreshing to see a lobbyist calling himself a lobbyist, so unlike the people who say they are from the supposed “non profit charities” who are doing the VERY same thing but with a WHOLE LOT more money, and the newspaper treats them like saints. BALDERDASH! Missouri seems to be the LAST place we can refer to as the “home of the brave and the land of the free”! And that is thanks to people like John, and the Legislators, who know the difference between lies and the truth. Martin Pion is paid to lobby for bans and he has no interest in EVER going to the bars he is trying to shut down. But he IS pious, that Pion!
[mogasp reply: My effort to promote smoke-free air has nothing whatever to do with piety! It has everything to do with sensitivity to secondhand smoke to which many people, including myself, view simply as an air pollutant, a view supported by science.]
Bill Hannegan said on: December 31, 2011, 12:57 pm
The Missouri House recently voted down a statewide smoking ban 36-97. They did so because smoking bans violate personal freedom, the property rights of business owners and hurt business. It is convenient for Martin Pion to instead blame John Britton.