No one is certain about what multi-millionaire Rex Sinquefield is up to. He’s not running for any political office. But we do know that doesn’t like the 1% city earnings tax levied on people who live or work in St. Louis and Kansas City. So he’s spending more than $7 million of his own money to promote a ballot initiative—of his own design—that could end the earnings tax as a primary source of funding for Missouri’s two biggest cities. And he just might buy his way into getting his pet project—Proposition A—passed on Nov. 2, an outcome opposed by every major daily newspaper in Missouri.
But this is not just a Missouri story. Sinquefield’s personal ballot-issue crusade puts him in some pretty fast company in several other states. According to The American Spectator,
… initiatives are the brainchildren of special interests or very rich individuals riding hobbyhorses — and funded by them. Proponents try to characterize and title them as “good government” measures as American as apple pie. More than a few of these become a curse on the electorate because they dramatically increase the state’s bonded indebtedness or tinker permanently with the state’s budget.
Sometimes, individuals bankroll ballot issues that promote their ideas of the role of government. CBS News recently reported that, “In Seattle, Bill Gates Sr. has plowed $400,000 of his own money into an initiative that would impose an income tax on the wealthy. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has countered with $100,000 opposing the initiative according to campaign filings…But wealthy interests can sometimes be personal. In 2008, Alaskan financier Bob Gillam indirectly gave $1.6 million to fund a referendum to stop a mine from being built near his fishing lodge.”
Here’s a look at a few other moneyed individuals in other states, who have figured out how to use ballot initiatives to advance their own political and/or financial agendas.
Big money in California
California is the granddaddy of ballot-initiative states, and big spenders are making their presence felt in 2010 more than ever. According to the California Fair Political Practices Commission [FPPC], “…the tens of millions of dollars from large donors flowing into the ballot initiative campaigns is once again the big story when it comes to the influence of big money in California politics.” An October 11, 2010 FPPC report highlights the largest ballot-initiative donations from individuals.
Charles T. Munger, Jr. has contributed more than $7.4 million to “Yes on 20” [Congressional Redistricting Initiative.] If passed, it would “remove elected representatives from the process of establishing congressional districts and transfer that authority to recently-authorized 14-member redistricting commission comprised of Democrats, Republicans, and representatives of neither.” Munger himself submitted the ballot language. He is an occasional activist in California ballot proposition politics, an experimental physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, and the son of the vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway.
Thomas Steyer, is not the author of California’s Proposition 23, but his financial involvement is noteworthy. In fact, he opposes the measure, and he has contributed $5 million to “No on 23.” If passed, Proposition 23 would suspend California’s 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act, the state’s landmark clean air legislation. Steyer, a hedge fund manager, is a philanthropist and environmentalist who is one of 40 billionaires who earlier this year signed The Giving Pledge to donate half their fortune to charity.
S.K. Seymour LLC, whose president is Richard Lee, contributed more than $1.5 million in support of Proposition 19, known as the “Regulate, Tax, Control Cannabis” initiative. If it passes, “cities and counties would be allowed – but not required – to adopt ordinances that license and regulate the cultivation, processing, distribution, transportation and sale of marijuana.” S.K. Seymour, of Oakland, does business as Oaksterdam University, whose webpage says it is “America’s first cannabis college” and provides “students with the highest quality training for the cannabis industry.”
Colorado: all in the family
Most of the money behind three 2010 ballot issues in Colorado comes from members of one wealthy family. The initiatives—Amendment 60, Amendment 61 and Proposition 101 would “end fees that [members of the Hasan family] say are essentially taxes, force local and state governments to live within their means, and strengthen the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights”, a government-limiting measure passed in Colorado in 1992. The Hasans are large contributors to Republican candidates and causes. Unfortunately for the Hasans, the $12,000 they have contributed to help pass the 2010 amendments is vastly overmatched by the $4.1 million raised by opponents of the ballot issues, says the Colorado Springs Gazette.
“Citizen” initiatives in WA
Tim Eyman is a one-man ballot-initiative machine. He doesn’t fit the multi-millionaire category, but as Washington state’s most prolific sponsor of right-wing, anti-tax ballot measures, he deserves a mention. Having sponsored ballot measures every year since 1997, Eyman’s 2010 project is Initiative 1053, which would require a two-thirds supermajority in the Washington state legislature to raise taxes. And while he may not be rich, he gained notoriety in 2002 for mis-appropriating ballot-initiative funds and paying himself a salary higher than that of any elected state official.
Live from New York
New York City’s Howard Rich is a real-estate developer who has been active in politics for almost 40 years. He is known for “funding libertarian oriented political initiatives such as term limits, school choice, parental rights regarding education, limited government and property rights.” In the early 1980s, he was active in the Libertarian Party and worked with billionaire Charles Koch [one of the Koch brothers who currently are contributing massive amounts of money to right-wing causes].
In 1992, Rich founded U.S. Term Limits and was instrumental in getting “term limits imposed on 15 state legislatures, on the mayors and city councils of eight of the ten largest cities in America, and on constitutional officers in 37 states.” In 2006, Rich supported—to the tune of $1.77 million—a ballot initiative in California called “Proposition 90” that barred cities from using eminent domain. He also championed and financially underwrote similar initiatives in other states, with donations that totaled an estimated $15 million.
Trouble in Oregon
Oregon’s Bill Sizemore has been a major figure in state politics and ballot proposals since the 1990s. A founder of Oregon’s Tax Revolt, Sizemore is the state’s most prolific author of ballot initiatives, and checkbook behind most of them. In 2006, of 37 initiatives filed, 15 of them came from Sizemore. According to Oregon Live, in 2008, Sizemore’s anti-union, anti-tax initiatives included:
- Measure 58: Ban teaching public school students in a language other than English for more than two years.
- Measure 59: Make full amount of federal income tax deductible from Oregon taxable income. Earlier version: Measure 91 (rejected in 2000).
- Measure 60: Ban use of seniority as a factor in determining teachers’ salaries and job security. Earlier version: Measure 95 (rejected in 2000).
- Measure 63: Exempt home improvements valued at $35,000 or less from building permit requirements.
- Measure 64: Ban use of a “public resource” for a “political purpose.” Earlier version: Measure 59 (rejected in 1998), Measures 92 and 98 (rejected in 2000).
Apparently, he never quits, although “every Sizemore measure has been rejected by voters, overturned by the courts or changed by legislators.”
Sizemore was the 1998 Republican nominee for Oregon governor, and he ran again in the 2010 primary, but he finished fourth in a nine-person race. Currently, Sizemore and his wife are fighting charges filed by the Oregon Department of Justice alleging felony tax evasion for failing to file state tax returns in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Sizemore has no ballot initiatives on the 2010 ballot.