Big money fueling ballot drives for schools and medical pot and against gerrymandering

So far, campaigns have stacked up a combined $800,000.<br>

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Using school desks as props, and surrounded by teachers of the year and Alpine School District students, Our Schools Now formally launch its tax increase initiative during a press event at the Capitol on Tuesday, June 6, 2017.

Campaigns pushing three ballot initiatives — seeking to raise taxes for schools, allow medical marijuana, and form an independent commission to draw political boundaries — are attracting big donations, according to new disclosures.

Two other initiatives have raised little to nothing so far — but they have just launched. One seeks to approve Medicaid expansion for the poor while the other is pushing for Utah to use a direct primary, not the caucus-convention system, to choose party nominees.

The Our Schools Now initiative to hike taxes for schools raised $347,740 so far this year; Better Boundaries, campaigning to stop gerrymandering, brought in $243,468; and the Utah Patients Coalition seeking to allow medical marijuana raised $214,480.

That’s $806,000 combined so far seeking to persuade voters to enact proposals that have been repeatedly rejected by Utah’s Legislature, where conservative Republicans hold veto-proof majorities.

The political issues committee (PIC) fundraising to date tops by about $90,000 that of the three Republican candidates who ran in the recent primary for the 3rd Congressional District.

Raising and spending the most so far is Our Schools Now — which aims to raise income and sales taxes to generate an extra $700 million a year for Utah schools.

Gov. Gary Herbert has expressed concern about that proposal, saying higher taxes could hurt Utah’s economy and its ability to attract new businesses, ultimately restraining school funding long term.

Our Schools Now reported spending $196,207 so far this year. That included $55,000 for legal work to prepare the initiative and nearly $76,000 for gathering signatures.

Organizers must gather more than 113,000 signatures for each initiative from registered voters to qualify for the 2018 ballot.

Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller tied as the top donor to Our Schools Now — giving $100,000. The Utah Education Association, a teacher’s union, also donated $100,000.

Moreton & Company, which bills itself online as Utah’s largest independent insurance broker, donated $40,000. Bill Moreton, the company’s president, gave another $10,0000.

“I think anything we can do to improve education is a good thing,” Moreton said. “People I look to and respect feel it is an important cause,” so he is supporting it.

Some other prominent donors to that initiative campaign include attorney, business executive and gay rights activist Jane Marquardt, $10,000 (she also gave $5,000 to the Better Boundaries group); developer and former legislator Bryson Garbett, $5,000; the Salt Lake Chamber, $4,500; and former House Speaker Nolan Karras, $2,500.

The Better Boundaries initiative is being funded by a PIC called Utahns for Responsible Government. It reported spending $159,000 so far — including paying $50,000 to Grassroots Utah for signature gathering. It also spent $36,000 on polling and $34,000 on political consulting.

That group seeks to form an independent redistricting commission that would draw congressional and state political districts after the next Census, seeking to avoid political gerrymandering by the Legislature.

Michael Weinholtz, the Democratic nominee for governor last year, was Better Boundaries’ largest donor — giving $100,000. Philanthropist Barbara Tanner gave $50,000. Powdr Corp CEO (former owner of Park City Mountain Resort) John Cumming and wife Kristi Cumming donated $10,000 each.

Meanwhile, the Utah Patients Coalition — whose initiative seeks to protect seriously ill patients from arrest if they use medical marijuana, and allow cannabis dispensaries — spent $122,549. Of that amount, $53,471 was to collect signatures.

The group’s largest donor, giving $100,000, is the Libertas Institute — a free-market think tank that espouses libertarian ideals.

“We’ve been working on this policy about four years now” and developed close ties with “people who are patients, or who have family who are patients. We no longer want to see them criminalized” for using marijuana says Libertas President Connor Boyack. “We are very eager to see Utah voters decide this issue themselves.”

The Marijuana Policy Project gave $24,364, and its foundation added $25,000. A group called Pass the Balanced Budget Amendment kicked in $25,000.

Count My Vote — which seeks to dump the traditional caucus-convention system for a direct primary — has said it has $1 million in pledges. But its PIC formed only last Thursday, a day before the reporting period ended.

In the day that it was formed, it reported raising $442. Of that, $250 came from former Lt. Gov. Val Oveson.

A fifth initiative, seeking to expand Medicaid for the poor, filed paperwork with the office of Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox this week — after the reporting deadline for PICs — and did not file a disclosure.