Regional Report: Midwest

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Regional Report: Midwest

By Hank Behar

Several years ago the Illinois legislature rendered a severe financial blow to every petroleum marketer in the state to help balance the budget, when it took $50 million out of the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Fund.

"Ever since then, our members have had to wait two years for reimbursement every time they did a clean up around leaking tanks," said Bill Fleischli, executive vice president of the Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association/Illinois Association of Convenience Stores (IPMA/IACS). He added that in spite of the long wait for reimbursement, petroleum marketers in Illinois receive no compensation for income lost by laying out their own money. The Enviromental Protection Agency estimates that the average cleanup costs $125,000.

"But now," says Fleischli, "matters are even worse, since the legislature is facing a $2 billion budget deficit and is planning to sweep more money out of the fund. That will leave our members with nowhere to turn, since cleaning up is mandated by law and the fund has always been there to help them meet the mandate."

Fleichli and the IPMA/IACS are lobbying legislators to turn the proposal around, which has passed the Senate as of press time, but has not yet been brought up before the House. The hope is that the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Fund would be exempt, should the sweeping of "Special Funds" be part of the 2009 budget solution.

Business owners in Ohio with 25 or more employees may be forced to provide seven days paid sick leave to each employee, with coverage beginning with the first hour of employment.

That's just one of the provisions in a proposal that may come up before the electorate in the form of a state ballot in November, if proponents of the bill have their way.

"This proposal is so out of line with current policies in the rest of the country," said Gordon Gough, executive director of the Ohio Association of Convenience Stores. "We have no choice but to oppose it. The Federal Family Medical Leave Act, for example, requires 12 months of employment and at least 1250 hours of service before eligibility kicks in. The proposal also re-defines full-time employment as 30 hours a week, which sets a brand new standard for the American work week. And, as if that wasn't enough, the bill awards pro-rata paid sick leave to employees who work less than 30 hours a week, or under 1560 hours annually. And it's silent on whether an employer would have to pay out unused sick leave when an employee quits or is terminated."

Whether this bill is placed on the ballot Nov. 4, depends on whether 120,683 signatures can be obtained on a petition, which, according to Gough, seems likely, since the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of the most powerful labor organizations in the country, is working full-bore to get those signatures.

"If that happens, we'll be working around the clock on our part with other members of the business community to defeat it, because the last thing we need in Ohio are more unfair and costly regulations that make it difficult to do business here," said Gough.

Meanwhile, the Missouri state legislature adjourned on May 16, after meeting for four months and seven days, leaving a trail of 1,938 bills and resolutions in its wake -- and the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association (MPCA) took an active role in tracking 180 of them.

"We worked hard on those that affected our membership most," says Ronald Leone, MPCA executive director. "All in all, we had a great deal of success. There was no fuel tax increase, for example. We fought and successfully defeated a bill to define and prohibit 'Price Gouging,' which would have opened the door to all kinds of dubious charges against retailers. A 5 percent biodiesel mandate didn't pass. And mandated temperature compensation equipment at retail didn't even come up, which in itself was a victory.

"There was also no tobacco tax increase, contrary to what's happening in other states. Nor did an increase in retail penalties for underage access to tobacco pass. And, a big one: a statewide ban on smoking didn't pass.

"In the area of alcohol beverages, there was no tax increase. Nor an increase in penalties on retailers for underage access, or a ban on minors for just being in bars. And a new c-store owner cannot be denied a liquor license if the previous owner owes money to a wholesaler."

As to the future, Leone believes that the big issues in 2009 will be the budget, health care, transportation funding, tobacco taxes and youth access to tobacco and alcohol.

"We may be looking at a lot more than 180 bills to track next year," observed Leone. "Stay tuned."

If a unanimous vote in favor of a new bill means anything, it should have no difficulty finding its way through the legislative process to become law -- which is just about what happened in the Ohio Senate on May 22.

That was when the Senate voted 33-0 to expand the state's Corrupt Activity Law to include "organized retail theft" in the state's statutory canon -- a proposal sponsored by Senator Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) and backed by the Ohio Grocers Association (OGA) and the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants (OCRM).

Organized retail theft (ORT) is a growing problem throughout the nation, affecting a wide-range of retail establishments, including supermarkets, chain drug stores, independent pharmacies, mass merchandisers, convenience stores and discount operations. It has become the most pressing security problem confronting retailers in today's market. ORT losses are estimated as high as $15 billion annually in the grocery industry alone, upwards of $34 billion across the entire retail spectrum. A study from the Food Marketing Institute shows Ohio loses at least $90 million a year in tax revenue as a result of organized retail crime.

ORT is not shoplifting, but a crime that is separate and distinct from petty shoplifting, as it involves professional theft rings that are organized and move quickly from one community to the next, and across state lines to steal large amounts of merchandise that is then repackaged and sold back into the marketplace. What happens on the back end of ORT when stolen goods are filtered back into retail establishment is of serious concern. For example, infant formula, a very common casualty of ORT, can be stolen by entire shelves, then sold or shipped to a warehouse, where it will sit for an un determined amount of time. Cans can be relabeled and passed on as a different brand or mix of formula, and then end up back on the marketplace, where an unsuspecting mother may provide a completely different type of formula to her baby, one that could be contaminated from the temperature at which it was stored.

"The Ohio Senate has listened to the concerns of the retail industry and they fully grasp the brevity of this crime," said Kelly Barr, OGA director of government relations. "We will strive to educate the Ohio House members on this important issue and push for an equally expedient process through their chamber. We applaud their efforts thus far and thank them for their support.

"Our Government Relations team shepherded the bill through four committee hearings," noted Barr. "After which the bill was put before the full Senate, which resulted in the 33-0 vote. Our lobbying efforts couldn't have been more effective, thanks to the cooperation of our members and the Senate committee's understanding of our concern with organized retail theft. It's a problem that's grown larger with time; one we have to fight with every legislative weapon we can muster."