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Big money driving most of Arizona’s ballot initiatives

Transportation tax, payday loan measure financed by industries

So much for the “citizens” with this year’s batch of citizens initiatives.

For most of the nine initiatives planned for the November ballot, financial backing from individual donors has been scarce. The money has flowed almost exclusively from corporations, political committees and a relative handful of wealthy individuals.

Grass-roots? Nope. Not yet anyway.

Take the transportation campaign in favor of a 1 cent-per-dollar hike in the state sales tax.

Of the nearly $1 million received by the ballot effort, just $100 has thus far been donated by individuals. Campaign-finance reports filed with the Secretary of State’s Office show that the vast majority of contributions have come from businesses with a financial stake in roadwork and other transportation projects: construction companies, contractors and engineering firms.

Likewise, nearly every cent of the $8.7 million dumped into a ballot effort benefiting the payday-loan industry has been donated by – guess who? – a trade group representing payday lenders: the Arizona Community Financial Services Association.

Initiative representatives counter that the disparity in campaign donations among business interests, political committees and regular Arizonans is nothing new.

But the divide is so pronounced this election cycle that it raises the question of whether Arizona’s direct democracy has become little more than a legislative vehicle for wealthy special interests.

Voting via pocketbook

Some past initiative campaigns have demonstrated better success at gathering money from a broad base of donors.

In 2004, the Protect Arizona Now campaign reported that individuals accounted for more than one-fifth of its $550,000 haul.

The initiative, approved as Proposition 200, set restrictions on government benefits for illegal immigrants and established regulations for identification at the polls.

Two years later, an initiative to ban gay marriage in Arizona garnered thousands of individual donors. Despite raising more than $1 million, Protect Marriage Arizona was rejected at the polls. Supporters have returned to the ballot this year but chose to save their money and energy by opting instead for it to be referred to the ballot by the Legislature.

Although no guarantee of success, small-dollar donations are important when measuring a campaign’s base of support, said Pat Graham, campaign chairman for the latest effort to reform the state’s trust-land system.

Said Graham, “Somebody who feels strongly enough to vote with their pocketbook is going to get out and carry the message for you.”

What if your campaign is short on cash?

Bonita Burks had hoped to qualify for the ballot new state restrictions on motorists’ use of mobile phones while driving. But despite a series of high-profile accidents that focused public awareness on the issue, her petition drive stalled long before it collected the 153,000 valid signatures it needed. Some of that she attributes to a lack of campaign funding that forced her to rely on volunteer, rather than paid, signature gatherers.

“It made it difficult,” said Burks, whose Safer Road Arizona campaign reported just $1,050 in total donations. “Although it is a very important issue and I’m very passionate about it, we just didn’t have the dollars to make it happen this year.”

Even with a throng of volunteer signature gatherers, border-security activist Don Goldwater, too, failed to make the ballot with either of his immigration proposals.

“In the history of the state of Arizona, no citizens initiative has ever been done without paid signature gatherers,” Goldwater said. “If you’ve got the bucks, you can get the initiative on the ballot.”

Measuring support

Luckily for supporters of Graham’s trust-land reform initiative, that campaign has a handful of big-dollar donors.

The Our Land, Our Schools campaign has garnered more than $820,000 in donations so far this cycle, most of which have come from the Nature Conservancy and a development firm owned by Democratic benefactor and former state-party boss Jim Pederson. Individuals have contributed $50,250, all but $250 of which was given by John W. Graham, chairman of the board for the state chapter of the Nature Conservancy.

Campaign Chairman Pat Graham said he expects small-donor contributions to pick up once the initiative is certified for the ballot.

“People don’t want to give money to gather signatures,” the Nature Conservancy’s John Graham said. “The broader base of fundraising is going to pick up now through the rest of the campaign.”

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