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Coca-Cola Hires Lobbyists to Keep Soda in Schools
 
By Gregory B. Hladky
Journal Register News Service
May 7, 2005

HARTFORD -- Getting Coke and Pepsi out of Connecticutís schools is proving a sticky proposition, partly because those beverage behemoths have hired some very high-powered lobbyists to shake things up at the state Capitol.

Legislation that would effectively ban soda and junk food vending machines in Connecticutís public schools has already passed the state Senate. But it ran into a lobbying maelstrom in the House this week.

With millions of dollars in sales at stake, the big-time soda makers were pulling out all the stops in their efforts to stop the bill.

But they were also joined by a number of other special interests, ranging from the Teamsters, to high school coaches, to some school boards, all of which fear they will lose jobs or revenue if soda is banned.

"It was pretty intense," said state Rep. Michael J. Cardin, D-Tolland, one of the billís primary sponsors in the House. "I felt like a fireman trying to put out all these fires at the same time."

After hours of head counting and negotiations Thursday, state House Democratic leaders decided to hold off on their attempt to get the bill passed.

One reason for their caution is that the bill is a favorite of the state Senateís top Democrat, Donald E. Williams Jr. of Brooklyn. If the bill dies in the House, that could jeopardize legislation dear to the hearts of House Democrats that is now awaiting action in the Senate.

Cardin, who is House chairman of the legislatureís select Committee on Children, said he and other supporters of the measure hope to get a vote on it soon. "I do think we can get the votes," he said.

But Republicans like state House Minority Leader Robert M. Ward, R-North Branford, arenít so sure.

Ward calls the bill both "unnecessary ..and irrational." He believes that local school boards are fully capable of deciding how best to deal with the issue of soda in schools, and says the legislation as written doesnít seem to make sense.

According to Ward, the bill would allow soda sales at "school sponsored" events at the high school level, as long as they werenít being sold from vending machines. But soda sales from food booths would apparently be banned at events such as midget football games held at school fields.

"It just seems silly to me," said Ward.

Advocates like Cardin insist that the goal of the bill is to halt the sales of soda to schoolchildren as part of the nationwide effort to combat obesity and improve the nutrition of Americaís youth. Instead of soda, students could buy milk, water or fruit juice to quench their thirst.

Cardin said "the No. 1 myth" about the bill is that it would financially hurt local school districts that now receive a share of the profits from vending machine soda sales.

"Studies have shown that when schools pull sodas out of the vending machines, thereís no drop in revenues," Cardin said. "Our biggest fight is with the soda companies."

To wage that battle, the soda companies have recruited some of Connecticutís top lobbyists.

The Connecticut Pepsi Bottlers Association Inc. had on its team Jay F. Malcynsky of Gaffney, Bennett & Associates, the biggest lobbying firm in Connecticut. According to Ethics Commission records, Pepsi is paying Gaffney, Bennett $50,000 a year in fees.

At bat for the Coca-Cola Bottling Companies of New York and New England was Patrick Sullivan, of Sullivan & LeShane, which was No. 3 on the list of Connecticutís top lobbying firms last year.

The price tag for Sullivanís services is $80,000 annually for Coca-Colaís New York arm, plus an additional $7,350 a month being paid by its New England subsidiary.

According to figures supplied by Coca Cola, its sales in Connecticut schools provide those school districts with more than $7.5 million in annual revenue of various forms.

Some of the money is allocated to pay for athletic programs, booster clubs, scholarships, scoreboards, programs for talented students and other school-related projects.

One of the key goals of the industry lobbying effort is to exempt vending soda-machine sales after school hours.

Federal regulations already prohibit soda vending machines from operating in schools from 30 minutes before school lunches periods begin until 30 minutes after the periods end.

The legislation would also set new requirements that, for kindergarten through grade five, schoolchildren would get at least 20 minutes of physical exercise per school day.

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