SACRAMENTO (AP) — The campaigns for and against the 11 initiatives on California's November ballot have raised an astonishing $350 million so far on causes ranging from Gov. Jerry Brown's tax increase to a labeling requirement for genetically modified food.
Californians can thank a handful of billionaires and millionaires for jamming the airwaves and mailboxes with a barrage of advertising, as individuals are the biggest mega-donors this campaign season. In many cases, the opposition campaigns are spending even more than supporters as they seek to kill initiatives that threaten their political power.
The initiative attracting many of the biggest donations is one targeting the political power of unions. Proposition 32 likely will end up with more than $120 million in spending for and against it.
Supporters are likely to spend more than $50 million backing the attempt to undercut the political clout of unions by prohibiting them from raising money from dues deducted from paychecks. Unions and other Democratic supporters opposing it have given more than $60 million so far to fight the initiative.
The rich and powerful pouring money into campaigns this year include a brother and sister with divergent political views who are approaching a combined $100 million in spending, a former hedge fund investor pushing a tax increase targeting out-of-state corporations and an insurance tycoon who is asking Californians to give insurance companies more leeway to set rates.
But unlimited spending does not assure victory, at least when it comes to initiatives, said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the election process. California voters defeat initiatives more often than they approve them.
"It's very hard to pass an initiative, but it's not that hard to defeat an initiative if you have money on your side," Alexander said. "I do credit California voters with doing the hard work to make informed choices. When people are in doubt, they often vote no or they skip propositions."
She and others said it is too soon to know whether the 2012 spending will break California campaign records.
The $350 million figure was compiled by MapLight, a nonpartisan group that seeks greater transparency in campaign spending, based on reports filed with the California secretary of state's office through Oct. 25.
Dan Newman, MapLight's president and co-founder, said he created the organization to shine more light on the money behind California's political process. The state's printed voter guides contain outdated information and few details about the money behind initiative campaigns.
"It's not just any voter who can put a proposed law before all Californians. It takes a lot of money, and so it's the wealthy individuals and interest groups that determine the 11 propositions that we are all voting on," Newman said.
Atop the list of the wealthiest donors this election cycle is Molly Munger, a Los Angeles civil rights attorney and heir to a fortune accumulated by her father, a partner of Berkshire Hathaway founder Warren Buffett. She has given more than $44 million to her campaign for Proposition 38, a broad-based increase in the state income tax that would funnel billions of dollars a year to California's public schools.
She has said she was motivated to pursue the initiative after seeing the poor quality of many public schools.
Her half brother, Charles Munger Jr., is next in line, giving more than $36 million. That has gone primarily to support the initiative to curb unions' ability to collect contributions for political activities and to oppose Brown's proposed increase in the sales and income taxes, Proposition 30.
The California Teachers Association, which represents more than 300,000 teachers and other public school employees, has given $32 million as it fights the so-called "paycheck-protection" measure and supports Brown's proposed tax increase.
Tom Steyer, a billionaire hedge fund investor and founder of Farallon Capital Management, said California's initiative process was meant to empower voters when their government cannot or fails to act, as is the case with the tax loophole he says would be closed through Proposition 39, to which he has given $29 million.
Steyer also bankrolled a 2010 effort to defeat Proposition 23, which would have suspended the state's landmark greenhouse gas emissions law.
"I think I've shown in both cases that I'm willing to go to some serious lengths when the rights of Californians are being trampled on in my opinion," Steyer said. "So that's my ambition: If I really feel like we're all being stepped on, I intend to be part of the army that's fighting back. And that's not going to change."
Proposition 37, which would require certain raw and processed foods to carry a label identifying them as containing genetically modified organisms, also has drawn multimillion-dollar donations from international food and chemical conglomerates such as Monsanto Co. and DuPont Co.
They have so far given $41 million to defeat the initiative, which would ban labeling or advertising genetically altered food as "natural." Its supporters, largely organic farmers and food companies, have raised about $7 million.
Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think-tank, said the amount of money flowing into California ballot initiatives reflects the high stakes for many groups. The outcomes of some measures on the November ballot, such as Proposition 32, will determine who has the greatest political influence over the next few years, he said.
Baldassare said that while California has seen very wealthy people exercising undue influence in the past, "it seems like there's just so many examples just on this one ballot," he said.
"What makes this unique is just, not that this hasn't happened before, but how many and what a diversity of views on the wealthy individuals about public policy," Baldassare said.
One outsize donation also has drawn scrutiny — an $11 million contribution from Americans for Responsible Leadership, a Phoenix-based nonprofit that has not revealed its sources of money.
The California Fair Political Practices Commission has filed a lawsuit asking a judge to compel the group to answer audit questions immediately or be held in contempt of court.