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Signs point the way to the voting services and polling place Hiawatha Davis Jr. Recreation Center in Denver's Park Hill neighborhood on March 3, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Dark-money nonprofits, a discount tobacco company and wealthy donors fueled the costly ballot initiative contests in Colorado, and the side that spent the most won all the contested races.

The most expensive ballot measure was Proposition 115, a proposed ban on abortion after 22 weeks of pregnancy that voters soundly rejected, 59% to 41%, at $10.4 million. Abortion Access for All, the issue committee that opposed Proposition 115, spent more than $9.6 million to defeat the measure, compared with only about $665,000 spent by several committees supporting it.

All together, the spending on the 11 statewide ballot measures totaled nearly $59 million, according to a Colorado Sun analysis of campaign disclosures filed Thursday. In all but one other contest, the spending was overwhelmingly lopsided in favor of the winning side. A failed constitutional change regarding charitable bingo drew no reported spending.

Proposition 118, a measure to create a paid family sick and medical leave program, was the second most expensive. Colorado Families First, the committee pushing the measure, spent $9 million, while the opponents spent about $800,000.

A deeper look shows that two progressive national nonprofits played a huge role behind the scenes and emerged as the top two individual donors in the 2020 election, the Sun found. North Fund spent $6.8 million and Sixteen Thirty Fund added another $5.8 million.

Those two nonprofits — neither of which disclose donors — funneled the bulk of the money to the successful Proposition 118. Sixteen Thirty Fund and North Fund also donated to several other ballot measures, including the abortion ban opposition and the repeal of the Gallagher Amendment on property taxes. 

Elsewhere, Sixteen Thirty Fund gave nearly $2.2 million to three super PACs working to elect Democrats to the state legislature.

The huge prevalence of dark money in the election came despite a 2019 state law that legislators and Secretary of State Jena Griswold said would provide more transparency. The law requires donor reports only if the money is earmarked for independent spending in candidate contests. It doesn’t apply to issue committees that work for or against ballot initiatives.

Nationwide, dark money spending has flourished thanks to tax law that allows 501(c)4 nonprofits to spend independently and conceal their donors, as long as politics isn’t the organization’s primary activity.

Of the nearly $34 million spent by the 10 top donors, $22 million came from five nonprofit organizations, the Sun’s analysis found.

In Colorado, the top two nonprofit donors worked together. Sixteen Thirty gave North Fund more than $9.3 million in 2019, according to that national group’s most recent tax filing. 

North Fund spent more than $15 million on state ballot measures in Colorado and elsewhere this year, according to the National Institute on Money and Politics, an organization that tracks spending. The total included $4.8 million on a successful Montana initiative to legalize marijuana. 

For Sixteen Thirty, the 2020 election represented a return to Colorado after spending nearly $11 million in the state’s 2018 elections, much of that helping Democrats take the state Senate back from Republicans. 

On the conservative side, Colorado nonprofit Unite for Colorado spent more than $3.3 million at the state level in 2020. Of that, more than $1.5 million went to a super PAC with the same name, which supported Republican state Senate candidates. The nonprofit also paid to gather signatures for two successful ballot initiatives: an income tax cut and an initiative requiring voter approval of certain fee hikes. Both Proposition 116 and Proposition 117 were successful.

The state-level total doesn’t include the at least $3.5 million Unite for Colorado also spent on TV advertising critical of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Hickenlooper. He defeated incumbent U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner.

Dustin Zvonek, who led Unite for Colorado, told The Sun in September that people should be able to give to nonprofits that may spend on politics without being identified, whether it’s to his organization or progressive groups like Sixteen Thirty Fund. “If people want to give, it’s a free speech issue,” he said. “They don’t want to be put on social media or it’s a headline on the news. They don’t want to be berated.”

The other big spenders on Colorado ballot measures in 2020 include interests and rich donors:

  • Liggett Vector Brands, a North Carolina discount cigarette producer, spent more than $4.4 million in an unsuccessful effort to defeat a tobacco tax hike that extends to vaping products and sets a floor price for cigarettes. The company is suing in federal court to prevent the minimum price for a pack of cigarettes.
  • Gary Community Investments, a nonprofit focused on low-income children and families, spent nearly $3 million, providing the primary support for the committee advocating the cigarette tax. The group also donated to the successful Amendment B effort to repeal the Gallagher language on property taxes.
  • Former DaVita CEO Kent Thiry and Fort Collins philanthropist Pat Stryker each spent about $2.5 million as two of the biggest backers of the Gallagher repeal. Oklahoma philanthropist Stacy Schusterman spent $2 million on ballot initiatives, most of it to oppose the abortion ban.
  • Boldly Forward Colorado, a nonprofit originally created for Democratic Gov. Jared Polis’ 2019 inauguration that has evolved to support his public policy agenda, donated $50,000 to support the increased nicotine taxes and $10,000 to support the Gallagher repeal. Polis was a prominent backer for both measures.

Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @fishnette