More money flowed to Utah ballot initiatives than state candidates last year

Five measures raised $2.5 million — 40% more than donated to incumbents and candidates for Legislature and state offices.<br>

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Former Utah Rep. Fred Cox tries to get recognized in order to ask a question during the Count My Vote public hearing at the Whitmore Library in Cottonwood Heights. The Count My Vote ballot initiative seeks to select party nominees through a direct primary and/or party conventions, Oct. 27, 2017.

A slew of Utah ballot initiatives are trying to write into law proposals that the Legislature blocked for years. And they raised far more in donations last year than incumbents and candidates for the Legislature and state offices.

New disclosure forms show that five ballot initiatives raised more than a combined $2.5 million last year. That’s 40 percent more than the $1.8 million combined for all legislative and state office campaigns (109 offices total).

The initiatives are plowing most of that money — nearly $1.3 million combined — into paying companies and groups to gather the more than 113,000 signatures that each needs to qualify for the ballot.

Year-end disclosure forms filed last week show:

• The Our Schools Now initiative seeking to hike taxes by an extra $700 million a year for Utah schools raised $688,757.

• Better Boundaries, seeking to form an independent redistricting commission to help prevent gerrymandering, raised $569,156 through a political issues committee named Utahns for Responsive Government.

• Count My Vote raised $512,394. It seeks to cement the ability of candidates to qualify for the ballot either by gathering signatures (while lowering the number required) or through the caucus-convention system. SB54, the new law allowing that, has been under legal and legislative attack by right-wing Republicans.

• Utah Decides Healthcare, seeking to expand Medicaid for the poor, raised $414,058.

• The Medical Cannabis initiative, seeking to allow medical use of marijuana, raised $355,221 through a political issues committee called the Utah Patients Coalition.

A sixth initiative is also proceeding, but filed organization papers after the first of the year — so it was not yet required to file financial disclosure forms. Keep My Voice would allow candidates to qualify for the ballot only through the traditional caucus-convention system.

Disclosure forms show that initiatives are fueled so far largely by a few big donors.

For example, 90 percent of the funding for the Medicaid initiative came from one donor: $440,000 from The Fairness Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that says on its website that it “bolsters state- and city-based ballot initiative campaigns and drives a national narrative to elevate issues of economic fairness.”

Count My Vote received 98 percent of its total through five separate donations of $100,000 each.

They came from former Gov. Mike Leavitt (one of the group’s founders), Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller (another founder), developer Kem Gardner and his wife Carolyn, developer John R. Miller, and Vivint Solar President Alex J. Dunn.

Four donors provided 94 percent of the funding for the medical marijuana initiative. That included a combined $109,000 from the Marijuana Policy Project and its foundation in Washington, D.C.; $100,000 from the Utah-based Libertas Institute; $75,000 from Salt Lake City-based Our Story; and $49,000 from the Utah-based Pass the Balanced Amendment group.

Eleven donors provided 82 percent of the money for Our Schools Now. The largest were: $200,000 from Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller; $114,087 from Robert Marquart and his Management & Training Corp. (which operates private prisons); and $50,000 from the Utah Education Association teachers union.

Ten donors provided 64 percent of the funding for Better Boundaries. Its top donations included $200,000 from former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Michael Weinholtz, $50,000 from philanthropist Barbara Tanner and $30,000 from Deb Sawyer of Salt Lake City.