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Published By:The Coloradoan

Issue committees pump $86M into Colorado election

For some corporations and advocacy groups, Colorado's jam-packed ballot has meant opportunity.

And they don't just care about political candidates. In fact, issue committees — which stand on the front line of fights over proposed amendments and propositions — have raised more than 10 times the amount of money of Colorado Democrats and Republicans seeking state or local office. These committees have drawn in more than $86 million, a staggering difference when compared to the approximately $7.3 million raised by state and local Democrats and Republicans.

These statewide issue fights — this year races concerning ColoradoCare, the minimum wage and a so-called "right to die" proposition have dominated much of the conversation — can give out-of-state groups a chance to get more bang for their buck and jump into statewide elections, which might affect their bottom line more than federal races, Colorado State University political science professor Bob Duffy said. States like Colorado are less expensive to campaign in than, say, California, which makes it appealing for groups looking to affect legislation without breaking the bank, he said.

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"Typically those elections are cheaper and also low-information elections," he said, pointing out that sometimes people have less information about statewide ballot measures than more high-profile races. "So a little money can go a long way. A big fish can have a much bigger impact in a small pond than they can in a big pond."

In the fight over Amendment 72, for example, the parent company of tobacco giant Philip Morris has bankrolled No Blank Checks in the Constitution, a group fighting against the proposed hike in cigarette taxes. Philip Morris is one of the largest tobacco companies in the world, and is known for products including Marlboro cigarettes. It has so far spent more than $16 million on the campaign. That alone is more than Democrats and Republicans running for state and local offices have raised.

"Obviously cigarette sale declines puts a real crimp in their bottom line, and they have an opportunity (to fight it), and it's probably cheaper to do it here than in California, for example," Duffy said.

Oftentimes out-of-state groups will use statewide races as a test case to see how effectively they can influence it — and again, it makes most sense to do that in a less-expensive race than in a large state with lots of media markets — and sometimes it's meant as a warning shot to groups who might be considering similar legislation in other states, Duffy said.

Opponents of the "right to die" proposition have gotten much of their funding from Catholic groups. The Archdiocese of Denver, for example, has contributed more than $100,000 to the campaign fighting Proposition 106, which would allow physicians to prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients who met certain criteria so they could end their own lives.

Colorado Families for a Fair Minimum Wage, a group advocating for Amendment 70, which would raise the state's minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020, has raised almost $5 million, including more than $1 million from the Center for Popular Democracy Action, a New York-based advocacy group which focuses on several social justice issues. Keep Colorado Working, a group opposing the hike, has raised about $1.7 million, and has also received out-of-state support, including $50,000 from Florida-based Darden, the company that owns Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse, among other brands.

"Especially after 2010, some federal election rulings unleashed some money," Duffy said, referencing a few court decisions on campaign finance, included Citizens United. "The floodgate really opened up."

By Alicia Stice