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Trade group spends $13M to kill soda tax

ALBANY - Big money helped defeat the "fat tax."

In a record-breaking year for lobbyist spending, the American Beverage Association - the trade association for Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other soda companies - expended nearly $13 million in 2010 to attempt to kill then-Gov. David A. Paterson's plan to tax sugary drinks, the New York Public Interest Research Group said Friday.

That was more than twice as much as any other special interest group, according to NYPIRG's annual report on lobbying and campaign donations. New York State United Teachers came in second, spending $6.3 million.

More than $210 million was spent by registered lobbying groups in 2010, the report said, breaking 2009's record of $197 million. It increased 6.5 percent, more than four times the inflation rate.

The beverage association and a coalition of markets, bodegas and unions unleashed a barrage of television and radio advertising last year to stop Paterson's effort to levy about 1-cent-per-ounce tax on soda and other sugary beverages. The tax was meant to help reduce obesity. It never made it into the final 2010-11 budget.

The association outspent 4-1 the biggest fat-tax supporter, the Alliance for a Healthier New York, which spent $2.9 million and ranked fourth on NYPIRG's list.

"It takes a lot of money to defeat a governor," said Blair Horner, NYPIRG's legislative director. "It also shows to what lengths well-financed groups will go to influence state policy."

Chris Gindlesperger, a beverage association spokesman, said the money was lawfully spent to stop what its members believed was an unfair tax. "We did what was necessary to fight a discriminatory tax and educate lawmakers and taxpayers about the proposal," he said.

Among the top spenders were groups that traditionally try to influence state policy: hospitals, public employee and health care unions, physicians and finance and insurance firms. The health care sector spent the most at $36 million.

The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee received the most lobbyist donations with $722,000.

NYPIRG's report was based on preliminary New York Public Integrity Commission and Board of Elections data. Walter Ayres, an integrity commission spokesman, said the $210-million figure could rise when final data are released in several weeks.

NYPIRG ranked Bethpage-based Cablevision ninth with $1,768,292 spent on lobbying and campaign contributions. Cablevision owns Newsday.

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