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Backers of tobacco-tax hike accuse opponents of hiding funding

Posted at 4:57 PM, Jun 05, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-05 14:43:21-04

HELENA – Backers of a proposed ballot measure to increase tobacco taxes and extend government-funded health coverage for 94,000 low-income Montanans said Monday that groups opposing them are not properly reporting their campaign activity.

Supporters of Initiative 185, which has yet to qualify for the ballot, asked Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan to investigate the allegations against a ballot committee and consulting firm.

“Initiatives such as these are often met with the resistance of well-funded interests such as multinational Big Tobacco companies,” the complaint from Healthy Montana for I-185 said. “Montana voters deserve to have clear information about the sources of the big-money interests that will be attempting to influence their votes.”

The groups “are already using undisclosed funding sources to conduct robo-calls, create focus groups and conduct polling in Montana to test whether false and misleading information can be used to defeat I-185,” the complaint filed Monday said.

A group called Montanans Against Tax Hikes (MATH) has formed to oppose the measure. Its treasurer, Chuck Denowh, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Its latest report said it has raised only $325 through May 27 and had a $1,700 debt to a Helena public-relations and political consulting firm, The Montana Group.

I-185 would raise cigarette taxes by $2 a pack, increase taxes on smokeless tobacco by 33 percent, and impose new taxes on electronic-cigarette and vaping products.

It also would extend past 2019 Montana’s expanded Medicaid program, which provides government-funded health care to more than 94,000 low-income Montanans.

Supporters have until June 22 to collect at least 25,468 signatures to qualify I-185 for the general-election ballot.

A coalition of health-care, hospital, low-income and labor groups are supporting I-185. Through May 27, the ballot committee supporting I-185 reported raising $334,000 – much of it from hospitals.

The complaint filed by I-185 supporters said they have evidence that Decision Point Consulting made automated phone calls in early May to Montanans, offering $100 to participate in focus groups on a proposed “187 percent increase to the cigarette tax on the ballot,” and that some of the focus groups had already occurred.

The complaint also said a polling firm that has called at least one voter, testing “opposition messaging” on I-185, last month.

Decision Point Consulting has not filed as a political committee and no committee has reported hiring the company, spending on focus groups or spending money on polling, the complaint said.

“… For the above expenditures to be made, there had to have been contributions to MATH or some other entity,” the complaint said.