The way to have your say if you’re a c-store operator is to establish relationships with legislators before you face proposed laws that affect your business. That was the consistent advice given by members of general session “Burning Issue 2 – Local Lobbying: Why your voice matters more than ever,” on day two of the National Advisory Group conference today in Minneapolis.
Moderator Tom Briant, executive director of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO), opened the morning’s second burning issue panel session local lobbying. Briant’s remarks set the tone for the discussion with the three other panelists.
Briant stressed the key importance of relationship building with lawmakers. Without those contacts in place, retailers will not have an opportunity to tell their stories or to provide guidance and point out misconceptions.
As an example, Briant talked about where underage kids get ahold of tobacco products. C-stores, he said, have an excellent track record of compliance with underage smoking laws.
“The FDA did a study called the PATH Study – Population Assessment of Tobacco Health Study – and 90% of underage youth obtain tobacco from social sources, older friends, siblings, parents and even strangers,” Briant said. The retail store, he said, is not the main source of tobacco for underage kids.
Jim Calvin is the executive director of the New York Association of Convenience Stores (NYACS). “We live in an unprecedented era of local government activism,” said Calvin.
In the past three years, he said, NYACS has had to engage in more than 50 issues at the state, county, town and local village level. He advised retailers to be vigilant in staying informed with what’s goin on in each locality they operate. Don’t expect anyone else to tell your story, he said.
“Only you can make them understand; only you can make them care about the jobs you provide and the safe practices you follow,” said Calvin. “Don’t underestimate your adversaries.”
He also counseled that in order to be heard, reason and engagement should be polite and sensible. “You don’t need to outnumber; you don’t need to outscream,” he said. “You just need to provide balance.”
Clay Lambert, managing director of MetroPetro Gas, related his obstacles when attempting to rebuild on his existing location in downtown Minneapolis.
“What I was up against was not law, but guidelines,” he said. “They wanted the building up on the street lines with the rest of the buildings. They wanted the gas canopy behind the station.”
When he asked if those legislators wanted their daughters and wives and even themselves pumping fuel behind a building and out of sight, they began to see the light of his design. Engagement was what brought them around.
Tobacco Central’s Jerry Smith spoke about how engagement helped his company successfully fight new tax initiatives. Like the other panelists, he advised getting to know local legislative body members, attend town hall meetings, campaign functions, meet and greets, etc.
Staying informed and viewing yourself as an educator for legislators makes a retailer an asset to them. They’ll turn to you for expertise because you may bring up issues with a proposed law that haven’t yet been identified.
Smith also recommended being active with other groups.
“We work hard with other industry associations to lobby at the state levels,as well as local levels,” he said. “We attend those meetings and that’s where those relationships pay off over time.”