ATLANTA — Large corporations and trade groups gave at least $217 million to sway the outcome of state ballot measure and referendum campaigns during the 2014 midterm elections, a new study has found. For the most part, they were overwhelmingly successful in defeating proposals that they didn’t like.
Several wealthy individuals joined those businesses and business groups on the list of the top 50 contributors to ballot measures, according to an analysis released Thursday by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity.
Altogether, those top 50 donors gave at least $272 million to campaigns for and against ballot measures. Health care concerns topped the list of industry givers, contributing nearly $88 million in 2014 — almost all of it in California. Casinos were a close second at nearly $60 million. The list of donors includes familiar corporate names, such as agribusiness giant Monsanto Co. and retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Also on the list: billionaires such as conservative gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
More than two-thirds of the contributions from the top 50 donors went to campaigns to defeat referendums, and those big-spenders on the “no” side of the ballot questions had a 96 percent success rate — often after dwarfing the campaign budgets of the other side.
The figures from the Center for Public Integrity come from state campaign finance disclosures made through Jan. 9 for 85 state ballot-measure campaign groups involved in referendums that included television advertising.
The totals include only contributions that groups and individuals made to political committees engaged in the ballot measures, and not the direct spending on politics.
The totals also do not include contributions made for smaller-scale ballot campaigns or contributions from those groups that are not required to disclose their donors.
In California, a coalition of hospitals, insurers and doctors defeated Proposition 45, which would have made it harder for health insurance companies to increase their rates, and Proposition 46, which would have raised the cap on medical malpractice damages and required physicians to be drug tested.
Opponents of Proposition 45 gave more than $31 million, compared to $2.6 million from supporters.
Anthem Inc., formerly known as WellPoint, contributed about $12.8 million, ranking second on the top 50 list nationally. That money helped bankroll television ads and a website that warned voters the measure would “give one politician too much power,” ‘’create more bureaucracy” and “interfere with your treatment options.”
Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, another dominant player in the California health care market, gave $12 million to defeat the two referendums, while Norcal Mutual Insurance Co., the malpractice insurance firm The Doctors Co. and the Cooperative of American Physicians each gave more than $10 million.
“Proposition 46 was bad for patients, bad for physicians, bad for local and state government budgets, and opposed by an unprecedented broad list of groups,” said Hal Dasinger, a spokesman for The Doctors Co.
In Colorado and Oregon, Monsanto gave $10.7 million to oppose measures that would have required genetically modified foods to be specially labeled for consumers. Monsanto is the largest producer of genetically modified seeds in the world.
Other food-industry interests joined Monsanto to raise more than $16 million in Colorado and $20 million in Oregon.
Labeling supporters, including smaller natural-food companies, raised about $1 million in Colorado and more than $6 million in Oregon. Monsanto prevailed in both states.
“We fully support the idea of providing information to consumers to help them make choices about foods as long as the information being provided to consumers is accurate, science-based and does not mislead,” Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord said in an email. “What we are not supportive of is a state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws.”
Big money isn’t an absolute guarantee of success. Mile High USA Inc., a company that owns racetracks and off-track betting parlors in Colorado, was the top single donor in ballot measure campaigns, giving almost $20 million trying to convince voters to authorize expansion of the company’s racetrack near Aurora, Colorado. Yet the measure failed by a margin of more than 2-to-1.
The opponents also had deep pockets: Other competing casinos raised more than $16 million for the campaign.
In North Dakota, retail giant Wal-Mart gave $9.3 million to try to pass a proposal that would have allowed the company to open pharmacies in the state. Voters rejected the idea, siding with small, pharmacist-owned drug stores and their allies who raised a fraction of Wal-Mart’s total.