MINNEAPOLIS -- Too often, retailers believe that they cannot have any influence on how local and state elected officials vote on a piece of legislation, be it a proposed tobacco-tax increase, a new restriction on tobacco sales or any other action that would negatively affect retail operations. This perception is not accurate, because lawmakers have a duty to listen to and take into account the concerns and opinions of all of their constituents, including local businesses.
One of the most important steps a retailer can take to protect their business from higher proposed taxes or other potential restrictions is to develop a relationship with local city council or town board members and the state legislators that represent the district or ward in which their store is located. Establishing a relationship before a tobacco ordinance or tobacco legislation is introduced can be helpful in educating officials so they can make a reasonable and fair decision on how to vote on a particular piece of legislation.
The following steps can be used to reach out to your local and state lawmakers:
- Visit your city or town’s website for a listing of your local officials and their contact information. Your city may be divided up into wards with one local official representing each ward. The website should allow you to determine which specific elected official represents the ward in which your store is located. Or, all local officials may represent the entire city or town, which is known as “at large” representation.
- The legislative website for your state will usually have a link to find out which state-elected officials represent the legislative district where your store is located. Generally, you will need to type in your address and then the website will provide you the names and contact information for your state officials.
- One of the best ways to develop a relationship with your elected officials is to invite them to your store for a tour. Lawmakers are generally very open to meeting with local business people and learning about their businesses.
- When an elected official does come to your store, introduce them to your employees and explain how they prevent the sale of tobacco products to underage individuals. In addition, describe your business plan and the percent of your in-store sales that are made up by tobacco-product sales. Be sure to indicate that customers who buy tobacco also buy other products such as gasoline, snacks and beverages. Elected officials need to understand how a tax increase or a restriction on the sale of tobacco products will affect your daily sales and your business overall.
- Besides a store tour, you could arrange to visit your elected official at their local or state office and educate them about your business.
- In addition, you can take the next step and either attend a fundraiser held on behalf of your elected official or send a contribution to them, especially in an election year.
- When a local tobacco ordinance is introduced or a state bill is pending that would tax or restrict tobacco sales, it is time to follow up with your elected officials and let them know again how the proposed ordinance or legislative bill would affect your business. Taking it one step further, you can testify at a local or state hearing on a tobacco measure so that not only your elected official hears from you again, but all of the other elected officials on the city council or state legislative committee also learn about how your business will be affected.
- If you do testify, consider bringing one of your employees who rely on their job to pay for college or support a family. Their testimony can be just as impactful as your testimony.
For 2018, make a New Year’s resolution to either develop a relationship with your local and state lawmakers or reach out to your elected officials if you already know them so that your business remains relevant to them during the legislative process.