Just looking at the dollar figures behind I-186, the initiative to add restrictions to mining permits, it appears the donations from proponents and opponents are neck and neck with about $1 million each.
But a deeper dive into the numbers shows a tale of two approaches to the initiative as different as their stances over mining.
The initiative would require the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to deny permits for any new hard rock mines if the reclamation plan doesn’t “prevent the pollution of water without the need for perpetual treatment." Supporters want mining companies to be held to higher standards in the future, so taxpayers don’t have to pay for treating tainted waters forever. Opponents say this standard would effectively end mining in Montana, resulting in job losses and a hit to the economy.
Montana’s top mining corporations are ponying up internally, with Golden Sunlight, Hecla, Montana Resources, Sandfire America and Sibanye Stillwater contributing the bulk of the money in the fight against I-186. Much of their cash contributions are being funneled through the Montana Mining Association, which accepted donations from the five corporations, then wrote three checks for $250,000 each to cover some of the costs to coordinate their campaign, develop strategies and produce and air about $1.7 million in television and radio advertising.
Montana Mining is a non-profit, and having the money go through only one organization helps with the bookkeeping and focuses the effort, according to Tammy Johnson, its executive director.
Three of the companies are headquartered outside of the United States. Barrick Gold Corporation, which owns the Golden Sunlight mine near Whitehall, is based in Toronto; Sibanye-Stillwater, which owns mines near Nye, McLeod and a refinery near Columbus, is domiciled in South Africa; and Sandfire Resources, which is trying to develop the Black Butte Mine near White Sulphur Springs, is an Australian mining and exploration company.
Under federal law, foreign corporations are prohibited from donating to domestic ballot measures, according to the Federal Election Commission. However, there are exceptions to the rule; one in particular allows the donations if the funds used are generated by the U.S.-based subsidiary’s operations and not from the foreign parent.
Johnson said they are well aware of the restrictions and are in full compliance with all of the laws. She noted that all of the contributions are reported, not just once but three times to regulators.
“They write a check to the Montana Mining Association and they report it, I report it, and when I write a check to Stop I-186 we report that,” Johnson said. “The sun shines pretty bright on that. We probably go overboard; we track everything, from the conference calls MMA does to the time spent on the job with phone calls or attending an event.“
Johnson added that it’s not unusual for mining companies to have foreign parent corporations, but these also have “bona fide Montana corporation subsidiaries” and no foreign funds are being contributed.
Commissioner of Political Practice Jeff Mangan double-checked, and agrees that the Montana Mining Association has reported contributions from those entities and properly filed as incidental committees.
Those reports show not only the $250,000 contributions from Barrick Gold, Sandfire Resources and Hecla, but also show tens of thousands of dollars of in-kind donations of time. That includes $8,120 in “staff time for 10 salaried employees to attend Trump Rally in Great Falls.”
Only one individual has given money to oppose I-186: retiree Connie Fitzpatrick of Helena, who donated $250.
“We’re not asking for donations from individual miners, but have counted on them for a lot of grassroots activities to protect their jobs,” Johnson said. “That’s some of the in-kind contributions you see on the reports. They work weekends and try to help us at county fairs, so we haven’t tried to solicit money from individuals.”
The reliance on donations from the mining corporations concerns David Brooks, the executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, which is one of the main supporters of I-186. He notes that Sandfire, which is one of the top contributors, is still trying to get the Black Butte copper mine permitted. The mine’s located about a mile away from the headwaters of the fabled Smith River.
“They’re spending a lot of money to prevent a law to prevent mines from polluting forever,” Brooks said. “They’ve been telling people that the Black Butte will not create permanent water pollution and have a lasting impact on water. I’m hearing a mixed message.”
THE SUPPORTERS APPROACH
Brooks' group and other supporters of I-186 chose a different approach to bankroll their activities. They started with $160,250 in seed money, including $11,000 from the Montana Environmental Information Center; $47,000 from various chapters of Montana-based Trout Unlimited; and $101,750 from Trout Unlimited’s national headquarters in Virginia.
Then Trout Unlimited, MEIC and American Rivers put out a call to their members, and the donations began to flow in from around the country, eventually totaling almost $650,000 from close to 300 individuals.
Coupled with $223,200 from their partners, and the initial $155,250 in seed money, supporters have raised a total of $1 million so far, according to state reports filed with the Commissioner of Political Practices.
“It’s hard to raise money for an initiative that hasn’t gotten through the state review process and didn’t even have the I-186 number,” Brooks said of the early effort. “To most people, it’s not real until the secretary of state qualifies it for the ballot. So we had in-house and outside council working on the language to get it through the state review process.
“Then you have to think about your messaging and create content for ads. Then there’s signature gathering, and we hired a firm because we wanted it to be done right, be valid and not get thrown out.”
Their first campaign finance report, filed for the period between March 2018 and May 2018, showed 25 donors contributing anywhere from $50 to $10,000, for a total of $36,150. The $10,000 donors included Richard Barnhart in Pennsylvania and William Collins III in Big Sky.
The donations took off from there, and the amounts increased to include $100,000 from David Leuschen, a Montana native who gave a New York address, but also owns the sprawling Switchback Ranch on the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park. Other large donors include $25,000 from Dave Perkins of Wolf Creek, who is executive vice chairman of the Orvis Company; $15,000 from retiree Sandra Roe of Ovando; and $10,000 from both Joseph Anscher, a real estate company owner from Long Beach, New York, and Robert Halmi Jr., a movie producer with Sonar Entertainment.
“There are people who donated who don’t own one blade of grass in Montana, but may come here because they love our streams and rivers,” Brooks said. “We also have a number with out-of-state addresses who are landowners in Montana. For others, it may just be a dream to come here.
“People care about Montana and Montana rivers, some of whom may not have been here but it’s on their bucket list. Others who live here may not be able to donate much, but they still want to help.”
FOLLOW THE MONEY
Denise Roth Barber with the National Institute on Money in State Politics noted that while it’s beneficial for candidates to have a large number of individual donors — chances are if they donate to a person’s candidacy they’ll also vote for that person — it doesn’t always translate to ballot measures.
Still, she’s said it’s not typical for ballot measures to have a lot of individual donors.
“There are a lot from out of state, but are in really low amounts, which is interesting,” Roth Barber said. “But the more money they can raise, the more they can blanket the air waves and mail boxes. It’s nice to promote individuals’ support, but you still need to have the means — money — to get that information out.”
Supporters of I-186 plan to do that, with $350,000 earmarked for television and radio advertising.
But raising and spending a lot of money doesn’t always equate to victory, Roth Barber said. A 2004 mining initiative sought to overturn the 1998 voter-approved ban on cyanide heap leach mining. A group called “Miners, Merchants & Montanans for Jobs & Economic Opportunity for I-147” raised almost $3.9 million, while two groups opposed to the measure only brought in $530,000.
The mining community donated $3.7 million of that, and it was soundly defeated by a 58 percent to 42 percent vote.
Johnson is cautiously optimistic of their chances this time, however, noting that “it feels pretty good when we’re out visiting with groups. But these are complicated issues that are being presented to voters in 175 words or less on the ballot. So it definitely takes some work to communicate that and get out the message.”
To Brooks, that message is as clear as the Blackfoot River.
“This idea, to stop permanent pollution and treatment, has been going on for a while. We didn’t hatch this; other states like Michigan, New Mexico and Maine, already have passed laws like this,” Brooks said. “We are not inventing the wheel here.”