August 20, 2018
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Bloomberg, NRA and other ‘dark money’ groups fueling Maine’s referendum campaigns

Micky Bedell | BDN
Micky Bedell | BDN
A Bangor High School ballot counted in the statewide mock election can be seen on Oct. 25 in Bangor.
By Darren Fishell, BDN Staff
Updated:

Nonprofit “ dark money” groups have doled out about half of the funds fueling Maine’s five citizen-initiated ballot questions in November.

They include former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, the National Rifle Association, national and state teachers unions, the Marijuana Policy Project and nonprofits supporting ranked-choice voting.

Unlike political action committees or political party committees, certain nonprofits can spend for political ends but don’t have to disclose their individual donors. Dubbed “dark money” groups, they make it impossible to trace some of the money in this year’s election back to a specific location or source.

But here’s how we estimated where each of Maine’s hotly contested ballot questions raised the most, based on the latest campaign finance reports documenting fundraising through Oct. 25.

The Bangor Daily News used the latest disclosures from ballot question committees to bundle together amounts donated to groups supporting or opposing each campaign.

That decision means contributions to each campaign may be overstated. That’s a common problem for analyzing such campaign finance report totals.

For instance, 10 groups registered to support Question 4, advocating for a higher minimum wage. Six groups registered to support Question 5, advocating for ranked-choice voting. Within those groups, some were affiliated. There were a few transfers between affiliates, be they affiliated nonprofits, ballot question committees or political action committees.

Because we totaled contributions across those groups, such committee-to-committee transfers may be counted twice.

Another challenge comes from groups that supported multiple ballot questions. For those, we divided their contributions evenly across the ballot measures they support or oppose to determine a total for each question. The division does not reflect how those groups actually spent that money.

With that in mind, here’s what we know about each campaign from the filings:

Q1: Marijuana legalization

Question 1 found a new top individual donor in the son of former Progressive Insurance chairman and noted marijuana legalization advocate Peter Lewis.

His son, Jonathan Lewis, of Coconut Grove, Florida, donated $250,000 to the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in October, outdoing PBS host Rick Steves as the top individual contributor to the effort so far.

Supporters have gotten the vast majority of their money from the Washington, D.C., political action committee New Approach PAC. The group was founded in 2014, naming lawyer and consultant Graham Boyd as its custodian, according to IRS records.

The group made up for more than 60 percent of all donations to groups supporting the question. About 13 percent came from individual donors and 21 percent from nonprofits, including the Marijuana Policy Project and its related foundation.

One percent of donations to the campaign came from commercial sources, including many businesses in Maine, such as the medical marijuana industry consultancy Jar Consulting LLC of Standish, the cannabis oils and edible extraction company SJR Labs LLC of Standish, Stone Soup Realty in Poland and Pechinski Capital LLC of Falmouth.

The opposition to the question, through two ballot question groups, has been funded mostly by the Alliance For Healthy Marijuana Policy of Alexandria, Virginia. By Oct. 25, opposition groups had raised about $230,000 compared with $3.2 million from supporters.

The question would legalize retail sales of marijuana, setting up a new industry estimated to grow to $200 million by 2020. The law would establish rules for the industry, legalize possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana for adults and allow adults to cultivate a limited number of marijuana plants at home.

Q2: Education tax

Supporters have gotten the bulk of their funding from national and state teachers’ unions, with additional support from other nonprofit groups.

The National Education Association doubled down on its contributions in October, giving another $1.2 million. The national union has given a total of about $2.6 million. The Maine Education Association added about $80,000 in October, with a total contribution of about $634,000 through Oct. 25.

Opponents got the bulk of their money — about half — from commercial sources and business groups around the state.

Individual donors gave about one-third of the campaign’s cash, and political action committees of the Maine Association of Realtors, Maine Bankers Association and Associated Builders and Contractors of Maine contributed tens of thousands.

In total, supporters have far outpaced the opposition to the question, raising more than 13 times as much. Supporters had raised about $3.8 million by Oct. 25, to the nearly $300,000 raised by opponents.

The question would create a 3 percent surtax for single and joint tax filers who bring in more than $200,000 per year. That higher tax would apply to income above that $200,000 mark, adding to the top marginal tax rate, now at 7.15 percent. The money would go into a fund for education spending administered by the Department of Education. The fund intends to supplement but not replace state spending from the General Fund that supports education.

Q3: Gun background checks

Opponents of Question 3, which would broaden background check requirements on gun sales and other transfers, also in October doubled their total fundraising. But they still remained far behind supporters of the measure, who took in $5 for every $1 raised by opponents.

The Yes on 3 campaign has been funded almost entirely by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund. Bloomberg’s nonprofit added another $1.5 million to the coffers of supporters up through Oct. 25.

The political action committee Americans for Responsible Solutions has given about $435,000 to supporters as well. The PAC was started by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords after her recovery from an assassination attempt.

Supporters have gotten about 4.5 percent of donations from individual contributors, including $250,000 from Bain Capital co-chairman Joshua Bekenstein, $125,000 from Seattle entrepreneur Nicholas Hanauer and $25,000 from author Stephen King.

Opposition to the question has been almost entirely funded by the National Rifle Association, which put another $508,237 into the race in October.

The question would expand the use of background checks to include private sales and lending a gun to a person who is going hunting separately or is not a family member.

Q4: Minimum wage increase

Unions and nonprofits, The Fairness Project and the Restaurant Opportunities Center have contributed most of the cash to the campaign to support raising Maine’s minimum wage to $12 by 2020 and gradually bring tipped workers up to the full minimum wage.

Supporters have raised about $2.2 million, with about 22 percent of the money coming from political action committees affiliated with ballot question committees. That total may reflect double-counting of contributions, as the group Mainers for Fair Wages had both a ballot question committee and political action committee registered to work on the question.

That group was started by the Maine People’s Alliance, which has a separate ballot question committee registered to advocate on Questions 2, 4 and 5. A coming BDN analysis of campaign spending in the races will make clearer where these campaigns directed their money.

Finance data so far show that opponents of the question had raised about $155,000 through Oct. 25, mostly from commercial sources and the political action committee Restaurateurs for a Strong Maine Economy, started by the Maine Restaurant Association.

Those figures may also include some double-counting and illustrate some of the difficulty of tracking total political contributions on ballot questions wherein money is passed from one political action committee to another.

For instance, the Maine Restaurant Association in October passed about $5,550 to its affiliated political action committee Restaurateurs for a Strong Maine Economy. In the same period, the PAC passed about $27,800 to the ballot question committee Maine People for Maine Jobs, also set up by the Maine Restaurant Association.

Q5: Ranked-choice voting

Groups seeking to change Maine’s election system for state and federal political candidates doubled their campaign contributions in October. No groups raised money to oppose the question.

Advocates of the referendum raised about $2.1 million, a total that includes some double-counting for groups that have passed sums back and forth.

Nonprofits supporting the question include the Houston-based Action Now Initiative and the Maryland-based Fairvote, both which have given hundreds of thousands to groups supporting the question, including the political action committee operated by The Chamberlain Project and to The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting.

Those two groups also have reported contributions to each other, which would result in double-counting of contributions.

The prospect of allowing voters to rank their preferred candidates in order has drawn interest from high-dollar individual donors, including New York hedge fund manager William Ackman of Pershing Square Capital Management, and Nelson Peltz, a founding partner of the investment manager Trian Fund Management LP.

Ranked-choice voting made its debut in Maine in Portland’s first mayoral election. The system operates like an instant run-off. The process starts by knocking out the candidate with the fewest first-place votes, redistributing votes to the candidate listed second on those ballots. The elimination and redistribution process continues until one candidate has a majority.

Those are the highlights from the latest filing, which at just 11 days out from the general election is the last comprehensive report from the campaigns before voters go to the polls.

Candidates, PACs, ballot question groups and state party committees will file post-election reports Dec. 20. By then, we’ll know how much of that money was spent in vain or invested in victory.

 


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