50. Business/Trade group Kraft Foods Group Inc. A food manufacturing company based in Illinois.
show where it gave
$1.9 million contributed to 2014 ballot measure committees
view the full list »
Source: Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from state campaign finance agencies.
Extended ballot measure descriptions from the
National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Rachel Baye and Reity O’Brien contributed.
Correction, Feb. 5, 2015, 3:35 pm.: An earlier version of this graphic reported an incorrect total for Wal-Mart’s contribution to a state ballot measure committee in North Dakota. The company actually contributed $3.6 million.
Center for Public Integrity collected campaign finance records filed by statewide ballot measure groups that ran ads on local broadcast, national broadcast and national cable television networks in 2014. The Center then analyzed the donations behind the groups to create the list of the top 50 contributors to ballot measure fights around the country. [ More details on the methodology].
50 mega-donors gave $266 million, nearly two-thirds of the $424 million contributed to those ballot measure campaigns in 2014.
That means that a few powerful entities dominated debates nationwide over ballot initiatives, which were originally intended to give citizens a stronger voice in government.
Most of the top donors gave to more than one ballot fight — and almost half of them helped fund battles in multiple states. A few were also generous in other 2014 elections, as well. Five of the top 50 ballot measure contributors were also among the
top 50 donors to races for state-level candidates.
Some of the money paid for mailers and robo-calls, but much of it went to TV ad blitzes. In 2014,
more than $190 million was spent on ballot measure ads alone.
Multinational oil companies
BP, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil Corp. successfully beat back a measure in Alaska that would have repealed tax breaks for the oil companies. After giving more than $3.5 million each to the “no” side, they won with nearly 53 percent of the vote.
American Beverage Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C., that represents beverage producers, gave more than $8.2 million to fight a Massachusetts measure that would have expanded the deposit that customers must pay when buying bottled drinks. It, too, got what it wanted when 71 percent of voters rejected the new deposit proposal.
But 2014 also proved that money only goes so far, said
John Matsusaka, a professor and executive director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.
“Spending matters. If you spend money, you are going to get some votes,” he said. But “if it’s an unpopular measure you can spend as much as you like and it’s not going to pass. It’s not a system where you can just walk in and buy laws.”
Mile High USA Inc., a subsidiary of the Rhode Island-based
Twin River Casino company that owns a racetrack and off-track betting parlor in Colorado, gave more than any other ballot measure donor in the U.S. in an unsuccessful effort to expand gaming at its Arapahoe Park racetrack near Aurora, Colorado.
Mile High gave $19.8 million to a “yes” campaign, which worked out to $9.84 per ballot cast in Colorado. Mile High’s corporate clout was countered not by citizens, but by a group of competing casinos in the state that together gave nearly $16.3 million to defeat the measure. Mile High promised that much of the newfound gambling revenue would go to a state education fund: “By permitting limited gaming at Arapahoe Park, 68 will provide millions to our schools each year,” said one backer in an ad. But voters were not swayed: 70 percent of them voted against the amendment.
In another expensive, uphill fight,
Wal-Mart gave $3.6 million to an effort to pass a measure in North Dakota that would have let the company open pharmacies in the state, a haven for small, pharmacist-owned drug stores. Wal-Mart also lost, though its opponents raised a fraction of what the big-box retailer gave.
Giving big on defense
top 50 donors, business interests fighting to defeat ballot measures were more successful in 2014 than those whose money was directed at trying to pass initiatives. Companies such as MGM Resorts International and Monsanto gave heavily to fight proposals that would have hurt their profits.
MGM, which is building an $800 million casino in Springfield,
Massachusetts, helped pay for TV ads that warned voters the state would lose thousands of jobs if it nixed its gambling law in a November ballot question. “If Question 3 passes, we’ll lose it all — as simple as that,” said a man dressed as a construction worker in one ad. “We’re asking people to vote no on 3 so we can keep the jobs.”
For MGM, the investment of nearly $5.4 million to fight Question 3 paid off — voters rejected the initiative.
That fits with what political experts know about ballot measures: They’re easier to defeat than to pass.
“It’s easier to defend the status quo, often,” said
Daniel Smith, a University of Florida professor who has studied ballot measures for two decades. “The onus is on the proponents to articulate why a measure needs to be passed by the people. People know what the status quo is, and you can raise doubts about whether you’re going to be better off under this proposed change.”
Some companies made successful “no” arguments across more than one state. Agricultural giant Monsanto gave $10.7 million to fight ballot questions in
Colorado and Oregon that would have required genetically modified foods to be specially labeled. The company is the largest producer of genetically modified seeds in the world.
“We fully support the idea of providing information to consumers to help them make choices about foods as long as the information [on the labels] being provided to consumers is accurate, science based and does not mislead,” said Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord in an email. “What we are not supportive of is a state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws.”
Supporters of labeling, many of them natural food companies, raised nearly $1 million in Colorado and nearly $6.5 million in Oregon, but it wasn’t enough. Monsanto and its food-industry allies raised more than $16 million in Colorado and $20 million in Oregon, winning the ballot contests with 65 percent and just over 50 percent of the vote, respectively.
Giving money to ballot measure fights has become the norm for companies seeking to defend their profits, said
Justine Sarver, executive director of the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.
“Ballot measures were originally created as a check on corporate influence in state legislatures,” Sarver said. “Today, corporations use the process to pad their bottom line.”
And business groups are continuing to fight for their profits at the polls. For example, plastics companies in California are already gearing up for a referendum battle over the state’s ban on single-use plastic bags.
The companies have already given millions to back a referendum repealing the ban, delaying its implementation and allowing the companies to continue raking in profits until the vote.
“If you spend money, you are going to get some votes. If it’s an unpopular measure you can spend as much as you like and it’s not going to pass. It’s not a system where you can just walk in and buy laws.”
– John Matsusaka, professor and executive director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.
Billionaires and ballot questions
In addition to corporate giants, several wealthy individuals, including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, used their vast stores of cash in an effort to influence state and local laws. Their new prominence in the ballot measure scene has surprised experts.
“That’s become a big issue now,” Matsusaka said. “It seems like there’s a lot of them these days.”
Bloomberg and Texas billionaire John Arnold each gave more than $2 million to groups supporting electoral reform in
Oregon. The proposal would have reshaped the state’s elections into contests between the top two primary vote-getters rather than representatives from mainstream political parties. (Arnold and his wife are co-founders of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a donor to the Center for Public Integrity.)
But Oregon voters were skeptical of the political designs of those two outsiders, because Bloomberg has also
promoted gun control and Arnold has backed pension reforms. Sixty-eight percent of Oregon voters rejected the idea, even though the pro-reform side gave more than status-quo supporters by a nearly 5-to-1 ratio.
Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a generous GOP donor, gave $5.5 million to defeat Amendment 2, a measure that would have allowed medical marijuana in
Florida. Fueled by Adelson’s money, marijuana opponents spent an estimated $5.1 million on TV ads, compared to supporters’ $2.1 million. The pot measure lost.
But two individual givers managed to change laws through ballot measures. California tech magnate Henry Nicholas gave nearly $4.3 million to pass a law in
Illinois giving more rights to crime victims. Nicholas, a vocal advocate of crime victims’ rights ever since his sister, Marsy, was murdered in 1983, started his crusade for “Marsy’s law” in California and has since taken it to other states. The law to provide restitution and notification about court proceedings to crime victims passed in Illinois with 78 percent of the vote and essentially no opposition.
Rex Sinquefield, a former financial executive and now prolific political donor in
Missouri, gave $2.9 million to pass the Show-Me state’s Amendment 10, which gives the Republican-led legislature more control over the budget. Observers viewed this as a shot at Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.
“It’s not shocking that he would support a measure that adds to the institutional strength of a Republican-dominated legislature at the expense of a Democratic governor who he’s spent tens of thousands of dollars to defeat,” said
Jeff Smith, a Missouri politics expert at New York City’s New School.
the top donors to 2014 statewide ballot measure fights nationwide, the Center for Public Integrity collected and analyzed state campaign finance data for 85 ballot measure committees.
The Center for Public Integrity chose those ballot measure groups because they ran television ads during 2014 about statewide measures. (Five other entities, which also ran ads, did not disclose the source of their money to state or federal agencies.) Only 58 of the 158 statewide measures had TV ads, according to a Center analysis of data from media tracking service Kantar Media/CMAG, but those measures represent some of the most prominent and expensive initiatives in 2014. TV ads are typically the heftiest expense in ballot measure fights.
The Center analyzed contributions made in 2013 and 2014 to the 85 groups backing or opposing those measures, available as of Jan. 9. Such data provide a picture of the donations, but it is imperfect because some states’ final campaign finances reports had not yet been made public.
top contributing business sectors, one outranked them all: Health care groups gave nearly $88 million in 2014, almost entirely in California. Casino companies were a close second, giving nearly $60 million across the nation.
The Golden State is known as the Wild West of ballot initiatives, with a long history of opponents and supporters spending eye-popping sums with far-reaching consequences. In 2014, two initiatives attracted considerable cash. Propositions 45, on insurance rate approval, and 46, which would have raised the state’s cap on medical malpractice damages and forced doctors to be drug tested, faced more than $90 million worth of opposition from insurers, hospitals and doctors.
Anthem’s crusade against Proposition 45 was aided by other health industry organizations also willing to give millions. Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, another of California’s largest health insurance plans, gave $12.4 million to defeat both 45 and Proposition 46.
Medical malpractice insurers
Norcal Mutual Insurance Company, The Doctors Company and the Cooperative of American Physicians each gave more than $10 million to fight the health measures in California.
The Proposition 46 opponents framed the measure as the darling of trial lawyers, who indeed backed it and argued that it would have protected patients by reducing preventable medical errors.
“Before you vote, remember the risks about Prop. 46,” said one ad paid for by the insurers. “The trial lawyers wrote it to serve themselves, not the rest of us, mixing three unrelated provisions together to hide what Prop. 46 actually does — allow the trial lawyers to make millions, for more medical lawsuits and higher jury awards, while Californians pay when our healthcare costs skyrocket. That’s the true story.”
Hal Dasinger, a spokesman for The Doctors Company, noted the election results showed voters agreed with his company’s position: “Proposition 46 was bad for patients, bad for physicians, bad for local and state government budgets, and opposed by an unprecedented, broad list of groups.”
Giving tens of millions of dollars to ballot measure contests was worth the investment for the health care companies, according to
Wendell Potter, a former insurance executive-turned-whistleblower who writes an opinion column about health care for the Center for Public Integrity.
“These insurers have enormous amounts of money,” he said. “The largest companies make billions of dollars in profits every year. They have the money to spend, and they’re quite willing to spend it to prevent any legislation or regulation that they have reason to believe might in some way cost them money or have a negative impact on profitability.”
But in 2016, the health care industry, along with its money, will take on a harder task in California: trying to pass a measure, rather than defeat one.
California Hospital Association is sponsoring an initiative to make permanent a program to attract more federal dollars for low-income patients’ care. The hospital group plans to round up allies and spend big, if necessary, in yet another ballot measure showdown.
“It could be 20 million. It could be 40 million. It could be more than that,” said Jan Emerson-Shea, the group’s spokeswoman. “Our decision will be based on: ‘What do we have to do to win this measure?’ If there is opposition we have to fight off, then the price tag will be higher.”
Correction, Feb. 5, 2015, 3:35 p.m.: An earlier version of this story reported an incorrect total for Wal-Mart’s contribution to a state ballot measure committee in North Dakota. The company actually contributed $3.6 million. Because of that error, the total amount contributed to ballot measure campaigns overall, as well as by the top 50 donors, were incorrect. The correct figures are $424 million and $266 million respectively.
Read more in
NRA-launched Law Enforcement Alliance of America targets state races
Buzz for legislation growing among other states in wake of ‘Citizens United’ decision