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Californian spends $44 million, loses ballot initiative fight

Taxes, charter schools, unions on state ballots

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Marijuana legalization, gay marriage and a state version of the DREAM Act are this year’s ballot initiative winners. But those who gave the largest sums to state referenda poured tens of millions of dollars into their cause — and lost.

Molly Munger was the largest individual donor to a state ballot initiative, giving about $44 million to support a proposal to raise revenue for schools and early childhood education in California, according to the California Secretary of State.

Seventy-two percent of California voters rejected Proposal 38, which was backed by the Pasadena civil rights attorney.

Munger’s father is Charlie Munger, the billionaire vice chairman of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway investment firm. She co-founded the Advancement Project with her husband Steven English (who chipped in $3.3 million for Prop 38). In 2000, the group won a billion-dollar lawsuit over inequitable school-construction practices in California.

Munger’s millions equal 5 percent of all federal Head Start money California received in 2009 for its early childhood education programs. A $44 million gift to Los Angeles’ Head Start agency would equal a fifth of the federal grant the city received last year.

Munger outspent her brother, Stanford physicist Charles Munger Jr., a Republican activist who shelled out $23 million on ballot proposals. Munger Jr. opposed Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s initiative that sought to raise revenue for schools by upping the sales tax and levies on the state’s wealthy residents.

The measure passed with 53 percent of the vote.

Munger Jr. also supported an effort to restrict unions from using members’ dues payments to fund political activities. It was rejected by 56 percent of voters.

In Michigan, the owner of North America’s busiest international crossing spent nearly $32 million to hinder construction of a second, government-funded bridge across the Detroit River, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Billionaire Manuel Moroun’s DIBC Holdings Inc., which owns the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor, Canada, was the sole funder of referendum Number 6 called “Let the People Decide.” When Michiganders went to the polls, 60 percent favored the new bridge.

Another subsidiary of Moroun’s financial empire, Liberty Bell Agency, Inc., spent $3.5 million to support a tea party-backed initiative that would have required a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to raise any taxes. Seventy percent of voters rejected the proposal.

Moroun and the Mungers spent roughly $100 million on state ballot initiatives. The total tops the combined output of the two top donors to federal super PACs for the 2012 election, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, who gave nearly $81 million through Oct. 17.

In Michigan, a ballot initiative to put collective bargaining rights in the state constitution drew $22 million from unions around the country. Roughly half came from the Detroit-based United Auto Workers, the National Education Association and its state affiliate. Voters rejected the initiative, which garnered $25 million in opposition spending from Chamber of Commerce-affiliated groups in the state.

Adelson and his wife, Simmons and the No. 4 federal super PAC donor, Joe Ricketts, sent $2.6 million combined to Michigan to stop public employee unions’ most aggressive attempt to secure bargaining rights this year.

Unions won on their other major priority, the repeal of the state’s far-reaching emergency manager law. The law allowed Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to appoint a “financial czar” in several cities and school districts to fire elected officials, privatize city services and abolish collective bargaining agreements.

The repeal passed by a 52-to-48 margin.

The ballot effort garnered roughly $2 million in spending, almost entirely from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.

In Washington state, a successful effort to expand charter schools garnered $11 million in spending — $4.5 million from Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Alice Walton, of the Wal-Mart family fortune, sent $1.7 million from Bentonville, Ark., according to the Washington Secretary of State.

Also in Washington, the successful effort to legalize marijuana raised a third of its $6 million from Peter Lewis, the CEO of Progressive Casualty Insurance Co. California-based Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps All-One-God-Faith Inc., also chipped in on the campaign.

In June, the company’s CEO, David Bronner, put his money where his mouth is. He locked himself inside a cage full of marijuana plants and parked it outside the White House to protest laws banning hemp production.

While the D.C. Fire Department sawed through the bars to apprehend Bronner, he sat inside preparing his usual breakfast: hemp oil slathered on French bread.

Voters in three states — Maryland, Maine and Washington — approved laws allowing same-sex marriage. In Minnesota, voters rejected a proposed amendment to the constitution to restrict it. The ballot victories mark a shift away from trends in the last few elections. In 2004, 11 states passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.

Voters in Maryland affirmed a 2011 law modeled on the federal DREAM Act. Fifty-eight percent of voters supported the law, which allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition for college, provided they attend a Maryland high school and offer evidence that they or their families have paid taxes.

Chris Young contributed to this report.