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A Crack Lobbyist
September 24, 2007, By Tory Newmyer and Kate Ackley, Roll Call Staff

A judicial reform group that wants to standardize punishments for drug-related offenses is stepping up its investment on Capitol Hill.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums recently tapped Jennifer Seltzer Stitt as its first full-time lobbyist — officially, director of federal legislative affairs. The group advocates rolling back mandatory sentencing requirements.

And while Stitt said the agenda applies across the legal spectrum, for now she is focused on promoting legislation to equalize punishments for crack and powder cocaine convictions.

Current sentencing guidelines mandate a five-year term for possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine; someone would need to be caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine to earn the same punishment.

“The disparity truly doesn’t make sense,” said Stitt, who most previously had been director of public policy at the Population Policy Institute.

After years of no progress, Stitt said the group senses new momentum. Over the summer, a House Judiciary subcommittee held the first hearing on the issue in 14 years. And Stitt is hunting for support for a pair of bills — offered by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) — that would bring the standard for crack in line with that for cocaine.

Leftovers. After losing their House champion — former Ways and Means ex-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) — restaurateurs faced a setback for one of their signature legislative dishes: a change in the tax code that would help them write off more expenses to repair and rebuild run-down restaurants. But last week, their lobbying efforts paid off when Reps. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) and Patrick Tiberi (R-Ohio) introduced a bill the industry craves.

The bill would change the depreciation schedule for new construction of restaurants from 39.5 years to 15 years.

Michelle Reinke, director of legislative affairs for the National Restaurant Association, said the change would allow restaurant owners to speed up their renovations. And it would help offset some of the higher expenses for restaurants caused by the newly increased minimum wage.

“We’ve been having a lot of discussions with a lot of Congressional offices,” Reinke said. “They realized the inequity here and want to fix it.”

Reinke added that under current law, gas stations and convenience stores can write off improvements on a 15-year schedule, which has put restaurants at a competitive disadvantage.

“Our members will be in town [this] week, and this will be one of the three main issues we’re going to be talking about on the House side,” she said, referring to an already planned lobbying blitz.

Dan Gans, a lobbyist working for the bill on behalf of the Association of Kentucky Fried Chicken Franchisees, said restaurateurs will have to work with the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee to come up with pay-fors. That’s because when Democrats took control of Congress, they instituted “pay-as-you-go” rules, which don’t allow any tax cuts without balancing them with revenue raisers. Both Meek and Tiberi are on the Ways and Means panel.

“We’re going to be making a big push on co-sponsors,” Gans said, adding that the effort is off to a good start. “It’s not every day that you get eight bipartisan members of the Ways and Means Committee to introduce something, and we think that shows the importance of this issue.”


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