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Ballot measures could hamper cash flow in crowded election year

Vote concept; handdrawn ballot box on a green chalkboard

Vote concept; handdrawn ballot box on a green chalkboard

With multiple high-profile ballot initiatives in Arizona this year and a slew of other high-priority statewide and legislative races, donors could be asked repeatedly to open their wallets this election cycle.

Among the ballot measures are proposals to boost renewable energy sources, hike income taxes on Arizona’s top earners and shine sunlight on dark money, the term given to campaign dollars spent by groups that don’t have to disclose the source of their money. Pundits already expect key players will spend millions to fight and defend these contentious initiatives.

But will that leave major donors cash-strapped when statewide and legislative candidates come calling?

It could be too soon to tell.

Ballot measure campaigns turned in their signatures last week. Now, the initiatives are trapped in procedural limbo as the Secretary of State’s Office scans the thousands of petition sheets into its electronic system. Some, if not all, of the ballot initiatives will likely face legal challenges in the coming weeks.

Among the more contentious ballot initiatives are the Invest in Education Act, Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona, Stop Political Dirty Money Amendment and Save Our Schools Arizona.

The number of ballot initiatives vying for the ballot this year is more than Arizona saw in the past two election cycles.

Garrick Taylor

Garrick Taylor

Packed ballots mean advocacy organizations have to strategize on how they want to deploy their resources, said Garrick Taylor, spokesman for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“Crowded ballots make for tough decisions,” he said. The chamber is leading the charge against the Invest in Education Act — a ballot measure to boost income taxes on wealthy Arizonans to pay for the state’s public education.

In 2016, and facing two major ballot measures — one to boost minimum wage and another to legalize recreational marijuana — the chamber focused its efforts on defeating the marijuana proposition despite opposing both measures.

Looking back, Taylor said the business community bet correctly in fighting the marijuana measure. But voters approved the minimum wage increase. If the chamber regrets anything now, it’s that it didn’t have more resources so it could fight both proposals, he said.

“There’s not an endless supply of money, especially when you’re in a political season with very high profile candidate races alongside ballot measures,” he said. “So you have to be judicious in the way you spend those resources.”

Taylor said it’s too soon to tell if the ballot measures and the decisive U.S. Senate race, which is sure to attract millions of out-of-state dollars to Arizona, will crowd out candidate spending.

Jim Barton, an attorney at the Torres Consulting and Law Group, said he’s sure advocacy groups like the chamber, Arizona Public Service and others will have to expend money and resources to fight the clean energy, dark money and education ballot initiatives.

Barton represents the clean energy and Invest in Education campaigns, but was not speaking on behalf of those groups. He characterized the fight as an uphill battle for conservative-leaning groups because they’re going against public sentiment.

More than 90 percent of Tempe voters called for increased transparency in political spending, and education funding is the issue of the year after “Red for Ed,” Barton said.

But on Election Day, it’s not about the money. Voters will cast their votes based on what they believe in, Barton said.

“Sometimes, we get so cynical and think ‘Oh, it just matters who has the most money.’ Well, who has the most money matters, but it’s not the only thing that matters,” he said.

Of course, money does play its part, and financing could be more of a challenge for Democrats than Republicans, according to Zachary Smith, a regents professor of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University.

“Generally speaking, … they’re going to be stretched a little thin,” Smith said. He later added, “to the extent that liberals with money are watered down, that’s going to happen, because there’s just more to do.”

But the types of donors that finance big ticket items like ballot initiatives are traditionally different from donations fueling legislative races and the state’s top two political parties, said Kory Langhofer, an attorney at Statecraft.

Ballot measures will be relying on wealthy, often out-of-state donors — the clean energy initiative, for instance, is backed by billionaire mega-donor Tom Steyer — while down ballot races will rely on smaller, more local donors, he said.

“It’s kind of like IE financing — big checks from a few very interested parties, and not the sort of ma and pop contributions that parties and candidates live on,” Langhofer said. “They’re just different buckets of money.”

Given that one ballot measure wants to ban dark money, Smith predicted a wave of dark money from sources that want to protect their anonymity.

In 2012, there was an effort to replace Arizona’s separate party primaries with a “top-two” model, meaning the two candidates who garner the most votes in the primary move on to the general election, regardless of their party affiliation. Smith attributed a surge of dark money spent against the ballot measure to aiding its defeat.

“When dark money came in, they did a big push and flooded the state to kill it, and of course they did,” Smith said. “These people that are benefitting from Republican legislative majorities are not going to risk it.”

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