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Big money behind Better Boundaries initiative

By Lisa Riley Roche, KSL | Posted - Jul 28th, 2018 @ 8:52pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Backers of Better Boundaries are busy raising money for what may be a $1 million campaign for the initiative creating an independent commission to assist with the upcoming redrawing of political districts across Utah.

Efforts include a recent fundraising email urging a $14 contribution to the "Yes on 4 Put Voters First" campaign and warning that the Legislature's current redistricting process "takes the power away from the people and hands it to the political elite."

Plenty of such small contributions were part of the nearly $860,000 raised this year by the political issues committee behind Better Boundaries, Utahns for Responsive Government, according to the most recent financial disclosure with the state.

But the committee has also reported taking in some pretty big checks, too.

Those include $355,000 from the Houston-based Action Now Initiative, $200,000 from former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Weinholtz and $100,000 from the Campaign for Democracy in Los Angeles, which supports Democratic causes.

As of June 19, the date of the most recent disclosure, the committee had spent all but about $30,500, largely on gathering some 190,000 voter signatures statewide, well over the number needed to qualify for the November ballot.

"The process is very expensive," Better Boundaries Co-Chairman Jeff Wright said. "Our next goal was about $1 million overall throughout the rest of the campaign and I think we're close to halfway there."

He said while out-of-state groups continue to support Better Boundaries, going forward, the focus will be on raising money within Utah. He said many of the less-sizable contributions have come from Republicans like himself.

Democrat Ralph Becker, a former Salt Lake mayor and also a Better Boundaries co-chairman, said he doesn't believe the big money coming in, particularly from outside groups, has an influence.

But it's needed because in Utah, it's "virtually impossible to go through the signature-gathering part of an initiative without raising and spending a lot of money," Becker said. "I wish it were different, but it's just not the way it is."

The single biggest contributor, Action Now Initiative, is a nonprofit advocacy organization that works with a foundation started by billionaire hedge fund manager John Arnold and his wife, Laura, to support a wide variety of causes.

Their money has helped efforts to raise taxes on soda in Colorado, California and Pennsylvania, pass ranked-choice voting initiatives in Maine, and secure pension reforms, with former Utah state Sen. Dan Liljenquist as a consultant.

Now the Arnolds, who recently pledged $20 million over five years for research into gun violence and are pushing for federal government involvement, are contributing to Better Boundaries.

"Our interest in this effort is about giving citizens, not politicians, a greater voice in the drawing of their voting district lines," Action Now Initiative CEO Sam Mar said in a statement to the Deseret News.

"We believe that all Americans deserve a responsive and accountable government and we are proud to support grass-roots initiatives like Better Boundaries that seek to end the unfair practice of allowing politicians to choose their voters in order to protect themselves from competition," Mar said.

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Wright said the Arnolds approached Better Boundaries, not the other way around.

"They found us. We pitched them and they thought what we were doing was great because they believe in good governance. They believe in power to the people," Wright said, and saw the initiative as "a very commonsense proposal."

Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said initiative backers generally need to worry about "making sure it's not hijacked by some outside political interest."

Perry said the public should pay attention to the financial support initiatives receive, asking "where's it coming from and what is their intention, to make sure a local issue stays local."

Still, he said, that's not going to be a key factor in whether or not Utahns support Better Boundaries.

"It just isn't," Perry said. What will matter is how they view the initiative, and "the bumper sticker seems completely reasonable, that an independent group will help draw the district lines and submit that proposal to the Legislature."

The Better Boundaries initiative, one of three on the November ballot along with legalizing medical marijuana and expanding Medicaid, would create a seven-member commission to recommend redistricting plans to the Legislature.

Every 10 years, following the census, state lawmakers redraw the maps that divide Utah into congressional, legislative, and State School Board districts to adjust for population shifts and ensure equal representation.

But with Republicans long dominating the Legislature, the process has led to accusations of gerrymandering, or redrawing the district to favor incumbents or a particular political party.

For example, after the last redistricting was completed, former Rep. Jim Matheson, Utah's last Democratic member of Congress, chose to run in a different congressional district seen as more favorable and still barely won re-election.

While the Legislature would not be bound by the recommendation of the independent commission appointed by the governor and both Republican and Democratic legislative leaders, lawmakers would have to either enact or reject it.

Wright said he's not hearing much organized opposition to Better Boundaries. Instead, he said he expects the focus to be on the initiative legalizing medical marijuana, with outside money pouring in on both sides of that issue.

"We can't control all the noise that's going to be going on during the campaign. We'll just have to do what we have to do," he said, including touring the state to explain what can be a complicated issue directly to voters.

Part of that explanation is that the initiative is a bipartisan effort with significant Republican support, Wright said, pointing to the significant number of signatures gathered outside of the state's Democratic stronghold, Salt Lake County, as proof.

"Even when you talk to very hard-core Republicans, they find it hard to argue against it," Wright said. "It's kind of a no-brainer. Checking people in power, no matter how well-intentioned they are, is never a bad thing."

Becker, who served in the Utah Legislature during the redistricting that followed the 2000 Census, said the process became "so personal," driven by lawmakers from both parties motivated to make their re-elections easier.

"It's human nature," Becker said. "It wasn't just Republicans. It was also Democrats. It brought out the worst in people."

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