Data Tracker

Lawmakers raised big money for ballot measures – but didn’t spend much of it

For anyone who wanted to get involved in statewide or local ballot measure campaigns during the recently concluded 2015-16 election cycle, they could take their pick of issues.

The June and November ballots featured 18 statewide ballot measures on subjects ranging from plastic bag bans to legalizing recreational pot. Local ballots, meanwhile, included dozens of measures on issues such as fire services funding and football stadiums.

State filings, though, show that most of the more than three-dozen current or former California lawmakers with ballot measure committees took minor, if any, roles in actual ballot measure campaigns during the last election cycle.

Even as the committees took in millions of dollars, most of the accounts reported relatively small donations to ballot measure campaigns or clearly identified spending on their behalf, according to end-of-year campaign disclosures due last month.

The exceptions were Gov. Jerry Brown and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. Brown’s ballot measure committee reported giving $4.1 million to the campaign to pass Proposition 57, a measure changing state parole policies. Newsom’s ballot measure committee led and funded the $4.5 million effort to pass Proposition 63, which imposes new gun control rules.

Businesses, unions, and others could give no more than $8,400 to legislative candidates and officeholders during the last election cycle. Those officials, though, also can have ballot measure committees with no restrictions.

Loyola Law School professor Jessica A. Levinson, president of the the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, called the rule “an end run around contribution limits.”

“It’s just another way for candidates and officeholders to legally raise money” above voter-approved candidate limits, she said.

Spending reports by the committees often lack an obvious link to a ballot measure purpose. Many expenses are categorized broadly, such as fundraising, consulting or travel – the same types of expenses reported by candidates’ main campaign committee.

The rules, Levinson said, “are very broad and forgiving. They give an incredible amount of discretion” to lawmakers.

Valley Solutions, the ballot measure committee of Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, reported the third-most total spending in 2015-16, $454,000, behind Brown and Newsom’s committees.

Committee filings detail $10,000 in contributions to state and local ballot measure committees. In addition, the account reported spending tens of thousands of dollars to poll on local and statewide measures.

Mike Lynch, a Gray spokesman, said the committee also paid more than $100,000 to produce digital ads urging people to support transportation tax measures in Stanislaus and Merced counties. Both passed.

“One of the reasons they’re through is we had that ballot committee,” Lynch said of Valley Solutions. “He has no qualms about doing that.”

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Ballot committee spending on ballot measures

More than three-dozen current or former California constitutional officers and legislators had ballot measure committees during the 2015-16 campaign season. They raised and spent significant sums into the accounts, which are not covered by contribution limits. Ballot measure committees that spent the most during 2015-16:


Committee name


How much of it had clear links to 2015-16 ballot measures?

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom

Safety for All, Yes on 63


All of it to pass Proposition 63 (gun control)

Gov. Jerry Brown

Gov. Brown’s Ballot Measure Committee


$4.1 million for yes-on-Proposition 57 (criminal justice system)

Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced

Valley Solutions


$10,000 in donations to local and state ballot measures; more than $100,000 in spending to help pass local ballot measures; polling

State Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego

California Works


$83,000 in donations to San Diego-area ballot measures and county Democratic Party

State Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens

Californians for 21st Century Economy


$49,500 donation to pass Proposition 58 (bilingual education)

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-L.A.

Believing in a Better California


$208,000 in independent expenditures to help propositions 55 (tax increase) and 63

State Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-Azusa

San Gabriel Valley Public Services


None listed

Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley Thomas, D-L.A.

Californians for Full Employment and Balanced Growth


$65,000 in donations to state and local measures

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-L.A.

Californians for Fair Tax Policy


None listed

Former Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara

Das Williams for Isla Vista Self Governance


Supported Measure E, Nov. 8 measure to create an Isla Vista community services district

Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell

California to Innovate for California’s Future


$28,000 in donations to local and state ballot measure campaigns

Assemblyman Ian Calderon, D-Whittier

Californians for Strong Communities


$64,000 in independent expenditures to help pass Proposition 50 (suspending lawmakers)

Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda

Advancing California


$34,500 in donations to local ballot measures

Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield

Salas for a Strong California


None listed

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount

Keep California Competitive


$5,000 to local parks ballot measure

Source: Bee analysis of filings with California secretary of state

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