When corporations give money to get a ballot issue passed, the issue often affects their bottom lines.
A gambling company gives millions to allow the opening of a new casino; an agricultural giant spends huge sums to block mandatory labeling on genetically modified foods; or an electric company finances a measure to make it harder for municipalities to create their own power companies.
But occasionally, the corporate interest — and the shareholder interest — is a bit harder to identify.
In 2014, athletic-wear giant Nike Inc. put $50,000 toward an Oregon measure that would have eliminated separate party primaries in elections and $3,300 toward another issue that promised equal rights for women. In 2012, the company spent $5,000 to support gay marriage in a referendum in Washington, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The Center for Public Integrity reviewed 55 publicly traded companies and top corporate givers to ballot measures and found nine instances of curious positions — positions taken even when the companies’ policies emphasize their business interests as the overriding criteria in doling out political contributions.
The areas of interest were fairly diverse, but most seemed to focus on social issues or were aimed at fundamental changes to how state government operates.
When spending is aimed at playing politics, rather than business, it raises concerns with activists and shareholders, said Bruce Freed, president of the Center for Political Accountability, a nonprofit that advocates for transparency in corporate political spending.
“Companies need clear policies, and they need to follow those policies,” he said. “I think there is significant shareholder concern.”
What interest Nike had in the Oregon initiative on primaries remains a matter of speculation, as the company did not give a specific explanation when asked. A spokesman said the company gives based on “the merits of the ballot initiative, including the potential direct or indirect impact to our business.”
Nike policy states that political contributions are “to protect or enhance shareholder value.”
In 2014 alone, business interests accounted for more than three-quarters of the $266 million given by top donors to statewide ballot measures.
Some of the contributions that don’t line up with company policy appear to be aimed at building corporate political clout in the states.
Companies are keen to make governors and legislatures as friendly as possible to business, according to Paul Kelly, a board member of the Association of Government Relations Professionals, which represents lobbyists.
Sometimes that means contributing to issues that control how those politicians are elected.
Exxon Mobil Corp. opposed public funding of political campaigns and stricter contribution limits in California in 2006.
Companies may also win friends by giving to ballot measures backed by powerful state leaders.
AT&T Inc. and Altria Group Inc., for example, gave to a pair of California government finance initiatives championed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014. In Maine, AT&T, Waste Management Inc. and Coca-Cola Co. were among more than a dozen companies that helped fight the repeal of a governor-backed school consolidation plan in 2009.
“That, too, can be an effective tactic,” Kelly said. “It goes on to some degree in order to be involved and help people that you have to work with.”
Coca-Cola’s policy says that it gives politically to benefit the “long-term, sustainable growth of our global beverage business.”
Coca-Cola spokesman Kent Landers said that the company opposed the Maine repeal measure because the company supports education. “Education is one of the keys to socioeconomic development in the communities in which we operate,” he wrote in an email.
Waste Management said the Maine school plan helped stabilize the state’s budget, which aided the company’s local business interests; Altria and Exxon Mobil did not say specifically how their contributions fit with their policies.