November 5, 2012 at 1:00 am

Campaign spending in Michigan hits $175M

Ballot issues draw most cash, but court, House races add to total

Lansing — An unprecedented amount of spending on six statewide ballot proposals plus electoral fights for control of the Michigan House and Supreme Court has pushed campaign spending to an estimated $175 million this year.

Millions more in spending remains unaccounted for as voters head to the polls Tuesday.

The high-profile ballot issues alone total $149.5million — and counting — of the campaigning to amend the constitution, a whopping 85 percent of all spending on state races.

Ballot proposal spending dwarfs the $107 million spent in 2010 on all state races for governor, attorney general, secretary of state, the Legislature and courts.

"This is really all about the ballot stuff — that's what carrying the whole thing," said Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which tracks money in state politics.

Campaigns to amend the state constitution or thwart those changes are being largely funded by a handful of wealthy individuals, labor unions and organizations bundling millions in anonymous donations, a Detroit News analysis of spending data shows.

Some of the donors are more traceable than others.

The most widely known financier of ballot issues is billionaire Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun, whose companies have dumped $33.1 million into a campaign to pass Proposal 6, requiring statewide votes for new public bridges, and another $3.5 million for Proposal 5, seeking a two-thirds voting threshold for the Legislature to raise taxes.

In the Proposal 2 fight over a union-led effort to enshrine collective bargaining in the constitution, members of the DeVos family in west Michigan have contributed $1.58 million to a campaign to defeat the initiative while billionaire Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife have chipped in another $2 million to the cause.

Bundling donations

But while the DeVoses' and Adelsons' donations are public knowledge, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Michigan Alliance for Business Growth have concealed the identities of donors of $12.75 million under a loophole in campaign finance law that allows not-for-profit organizations to bundle anonymous donations.

"Clearly there are people in this state who do not want to be identified with the No on 2 campaign … (and) they're funneling money through other organizations," said Dan Lijana, spokesman for Protect Working Families, the union dues-funded group seeking passage of Proposal 2.

The United Auto Workers and related entities have contributed $4.3 million toward Protect Working Families, followed by $3.9 million from the Michigan Education Association and a related entity. MEA affiliates in school districts across the state have given hundreds of thousands in union dues to the campaign.

State records show the Michigan Chamber of Commerce has sent two ballot committees $7.2 million, while its political action committee, whose donors do have to be disclosed, have chipped in another $3.3 million.

"We fully disclosed everything that is required to be disclosed under state law," Michigan Chamber CEO Rich Studley said.

Jared Rodriguez, president of the Michigan Alliance for Business Growth, an arm of the West Michigan Policy Forum, said "no effort" was made to conceal the identities of donors who financed the group's $5.5 million contribution to Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, which is trying to defeat Proposal 2.

The West Michigan Policy Forum favors making Michigan a right-to-work state in which union membership would be optional. Unions placed Proposal 2 on the ballot to prevent the Legislature from enacting such a law.

No fingerprints

Business groups aren't the only ones taking advantage of loopholes in the campaign finance reporting laws, Robinson said.

A group seeking passage of Proposal 4 to create a statewide registry of screened home health care workers and give them limited collective bargaining rights has gotten all $9.3 million of its funding from Home Care First Inc. in East Lansing, a corporation set up in March by a Southfield labor attorney in conjunction with the ballot campaign.

Home Care First Inc. is widely suspected of being a front for the Service Employees International Union because of SEIU's financial interest in unionizing home health care workers paid by Medicaid (SEIU's national organization has poured $6 million into a separate ballot committee seeking passage of Proposal 4).

SEIU officials did not return phone calls last week, and the treasurer of the Proposal 4 campaign refused to disclose Home Care First's donors.

"I think it's safe to say that workers and advocacy groups on behalf of seniors and disability groups are funding it," said Dohn Hoyle, treasurer of Citizens for Affordable Quality Home Care. "Why don't we leave it like that?"

Robinson, the campaign finance watchdog, said the use of pass-through groups like the Michigan Chamber and Home Care First is designed to "get fingerprints off the money."

"Any money that goes into politics that comes from a nonprofit, it should be a requirement that the donors who contributed have to be identified as either humans or profit-making corporations," Robinson said.

"Because these nonprofits are set up like Russian dolls to obscure the original source of the money."

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Proposal 1

Emergency manager
law referendum
AFSCME Council 25: $1.8 million

Proposal 2

Collective bargaining
United Auto Workers: $4.3 million
Michigan Education Association: $3.9 million
National Education Association: $1.5 million
American Federation of Teachers: $750,000
International Brotherhood of Teamsters: $666,666
American Federation of Teachers — Michigan: $616,700
Michigan Chamber of Commerce: $7.25 million
Michigan Alliance for Business Growth: $5.5 million
Michigan Chamber of Commerce PAC II: $2.4 million
Sheldon and Mariam Adelson, Las Vegas: $2 million
DeVos family members: $1.58 million
Michigan Republican Party: $1.5 million

Proposal 3

Renewable energy
Michigan League of Conservation Voters: $3.1 million
League of Conservation Voters, Washington, D.C.: $2.35 million
Green Tech Action Fund, San Francisco: $1.7 million
Blue Green Alliance, Minneapolis: $1.42 million
Julian H. Robertson, New York City: $1 million
Consumers Energy: $11.6 million
DTE Energy: $11.2 million

Proposal 4

Home health care
Home Care First Inc.: $9.35 million
Service Employees International Union: $6 million

Proposal 5

Tax restraint
Liberty Bell Agency, Sterling Heights: $3.48 million
National Education Association: $400,000
Michigan Municipal League: $269,000
American Federation of Teachers: $250,000
Michigan Health & Hospitals Association: $250,000

Proposal 6

International bridges
Detroit International Bridge Co., Warren: $33.1 million
Fund for Michigan Jobs: $450,000
General Motors Co.: $500,000
DTE Energy: $250,000
Chrysler Group LLC: $100,000

Record spending

Ballot issue campaigns : $149.5 million
Political Action Committees : $34.6 million
House candidates : $13 million
Supreme Court : $10 million