Montana marijuana legalization opponents want pro-legalization group to reveal donors

Posted at 1:32 PM, Oct 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-12 22:18:35-04

HELENA — The campaign supporting two marijuana legalization measures in Montana has received much of its funding from a single organization based in Washington, D.C. Now, that group is facing complaints that it has not been transparent enough about where that money came from.

Steve Zabawa, treasurer of the anti-legalization committee Wrong for Montana, filed a complaint last week with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices’ Office, arguing that the North Fund should be required to disclose its donors.

“When it’s out of state and it’s dark money, that should throw up the hair on everybody’s neck, and just say ‘Hey, this is not the right thing for Montana,’” he said.

The North Fund has contributed a total of roughly $4.8 million to New Approach Montana, the committee backing Initiative 190 and Constitutional Initiative 118. It is by far the largest donor to the legalization effort, which has raised a total of nearly $7 million. In six Montana campaign filings this year, the North Fund did not include any information about the contributions it has received.

In March, the North Fund registered with the Commissioner of Political Practices as an “incidental committee,” defined in state law as a group may spend money on a campaign, but which is “not specifically organized or operating for the primary purpose of supporting or opposing candidates or ballot issues.” Incidental committees are not required to disclose their donors, unless contributions were directed specifically for a certain candidate or ballot issue.

Earlier this year, Commissioner Jeff Mangan decided to reclassify the North Fund as an “independent committee,” which would require it to disclose its donors. The North Fund asked last month for that decision to be reconsidered.

In response to questions from MTN about the North Fund’s operations, Naomi Seligman, a spokesperson for the organization, released a statement.

“Our response to the initial COPP letter defines North Fund's mission to carry out public education and advocacy efforts regarding progressive policies, through grassroots organizing, legislative lobbying, or ballot measures, on a wide range of issues,” Seligman said. “It clearly states that North Fund was not established to focus solely on any specific state or policy proposal, including cannabis policy reform or marijuana legalization. North Fund's work spans a number of states and covers critical issues, including justice reform, civic education, and quality and affordable healthcare.”

According to data from the National Institute on Money in Politics, over the last two years, the North Fund also spent almost $2.5 million supporting a Medicaid expansion ballot measure in Missouri and more than $1 million in Colorado, backing paid family leave and transportation funding and opposing a ban on late-term abortion.

While Mangan was considering reclassifying the North Fund, Zabawa filed a formal complaint against the group. In it, he pointed to the Colorado and Missouri spending and to $2 million it contributed to an Ohio effort to raise the minimum wage.

“From North Fund’s documented campaign finance activities in Montana and across the country, it is readily apparent North Fund’s campaign finance activities are not incidental to its existence but are in fact central to its existence,” the complaint said.

Zabawa told MTN he believed the question of transparency would resonate with Montana voters.

“Nobody knows who the wizard is,” he said. “All we want to do is push the curtain over and find out who the Wizard of Oz is – in this case the Wizard of Pot.”

Mangan declined to comment on an active complaint.

Seligman told MTN the North Fund was still reviewing Zabawa’s complaint.

I-190 would set up the framework for a recreational marijuana system in Montana, including a 20% tax on sales. CI-118 would amend the Montana Constitution to let the state prohibit marijuana sales to people younger than 21.

“In Montana, we are proud to support New Approach Montana's efforts to pass both marijuana initiatives because together they deliver clear benefits to Montanans: close to $50 million a year in tax revenue that can be spent to help veterans and their families, to support substance abuse programs, to provide healthcare to the elderly and to people with disabilities, to open access to public lands, improve parks and trails, and to support local government,” said Seligman.

Pepper Petersen, New Approach Montana’s political director, also released a statement in response to the complaint.

"The North Fund is a donor to our effort and we're grateful for its support,” he said. “Our campaign is focused on the benefits of voting yes on CI-118 and yes on I-190. These initiatives will increase access to medical marijuana for patients including veterans, generate $236 million in new tax revenue over the next six years, and stop wasting law enforcement time and resources on arresting people for marijuana possession.”

New Approach Montana has also received about $1.9 million from the national New Approach PAC. That organization is also registered with COPP as an incidental committee and does not include donor information on its forms in Montana. However, it does reveal its donors in federal filings with the IRS.