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Utah Ballot Initiatives Attract Millions In Special Interest Donations

Erik Neumann / KUER

Ballot initiative groups pushing for policy changes like full Medicaid expansion and increased access to legalized medical marijuana are patiently waiting to qualify for the November ballot.

The deadline for county clerks to submit verified signature totals to the lieutenant governor’s office is May 15. In the meantime, here’s a look at funds raised by the groups hoping to get on the ballot, including special interest money:

Credit Nicole Nixon

Medical Marijuana

Surprisingly, the Utah Patients Coalition, which wants broader legalized medical marijuana, has raised the least amount of money —  about $650,000 since last year. Of the four proposed ballot initiatives, the Utah Patients Coalition turned in the highest number of signatures before the April 16 deadline — more than 200,000.

But fundraising is only one marker of a successful ballot initiative, said Brigham Young University political science professor David Magleby.

“Money can help you hire professional communications people and signature collectors,” he said. “But you also look for intensity and volunteer commitment. It may well be that this issue, which has been around for a couple of legislative sessions, may have developed a kind of grassroots dynamic.”  

The Utah Patients Coalition still received more than $100,000 from the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project and $50,000 from Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, an organic soap company with a line of hemp-based products. In 2016, Dr. Bronner's said it would contribute to campaigns to legalize marijuana.

2018 Utah Ballot Initiative Fundraising
Medicaid Expansion
Another healthcare-related ballot initiative is trying to get full Medicaid expansion approved by voters. Utah Decides Healthcare has so far raised more than $2 million — more than any other ballot group.

Financial disclosure forms show more than $1.67 million of that money came from The Fairness Project, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit pushing for Medicaid expansion and raising the minimum wage in other states. The Utah Health Policy Project contributed $14,819 in in-kind donations.

Most of the money Utah Decides Healthcare has spent so far this year was on signature gathering. Since January, the group has paid more than $1.35 million to a signature-gathering company in hopes of qualifying for the ballot.

Count My Vote
The only ballot group that collected most of its money in-state is Count My Vote, which wants to strengthen Utah’s dual-path election system. But the group still got $100,000 donations from a handful of wealthy Utahns like Gail Miller, who owns the Utah Jazz; Scott Anderson, CEO of Zions Bank; philanthropist Kem Gardner and Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen.  

Count My Vote has raised $838,371 since 2017.

Better Boundaries
The last ballot group, Better Boundaries, is pushing for an independent redistricting committee ahead of the 2020 census. Its political issue committee Utahns for Responsive Government has raised more than $1.3 million since last year.

Credit Julia Ritchey, KUER

While more than half of its funding came from individual contributions from Utahns, Better Boundaries got a boost from out-of-state groups like the Action Now Initiative in Texas, which  donates $355,000. California-based Campaign for Democracy kicked in $100,000 and the ACLU in New York donated $50,000 to Better Boundaries this year.

The Next Steps
County clerks have until May 15 to verify signatures that were submitted earlier this month.  In late May, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox will certify which initiative groups qualify for the November ballot.

That’s when fundraising will really ramp up.

“Once they’ve qualified for the ballot, then the opposition will really get going,” Magleby said. “For many of these measures, there will be a strong, well-organized and well-funded opposition.”

The medical marijuana initiative already has a powerful set of opponents, including the LDS Church, Gov. Gary Herbertand the Utah Medical Association.

Two ballot groups did not submit final signatures for verification. Keep My Voice, which wants to return to the caucus-convention nominating system for Utah elections, said it did not have the signatures to qualify. Our Schools Now was seeking to raise taxes for school funding, but struck a deal with the legislature for a voter-approved 10-cent gasoline tax increase. 

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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