Corporate campaign contributions in Idaho’s 2014 elections were dominated by interests in agriculture, energy and natural resources, and financial service-related companies including insurers and real estate, with combined giving from those sectors accounting for more than one-third of all business giving.
A review of campaign donations shows that companies, trade groups and other organizations representing those top sectors gave roughly $3.4 million to candidates in Idaho state races last year, about 36 percent of the $9.4 million contributed by all organized groups, including businesses, PACs, political committees and other special interests.
Giving by individuals for the same period was $11.3 million, and contributions of $50 or less, which are not itemized, added another $1.1 million, bringing the overall total to $21.8 million.
From a national perspective, Idaho’s total is a paltry sum, representing just .5 percent of the more than $4.6 billion contributed in 2014. Overall, Idaho ranked 43rd among states in total dollars contributed, slightly behind Montana and ahead of South Dakota. The top five states were California, Texas, Illinois, Florida and New York. More than half a billion dollars poured into races in California, 12 percent of the national total.
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The Idaho Statesman analyzed 2014 contributions in Idaho races for federal and state offices, including state legislative offices, with a focus on campaign giving by corporate interests and the sectors and industries they represent. The analysis drew on data compiled from official state sources by the National Institute on Money in State Politics (followthemoney.org), which the Statesman refined and localized.
“This is the way the system works,” said Jasper LiCalzi, professor of political economy at The College of Idaho. “It’s not directly ‘You vote for this bill and we’ll give your campaign $5,000.’ It doesn’t work that way. They give money to candidates who tend to support them anyway.
“Another way to look at it is kind of like having a lawyer on retainer. What this buys as much as anything is access. ... You’ve got to always be a player so when something comes up you can call them right away.”
Some additional top level findings:
• Of the $21.8 million in total contributions, $7.2 million came from interests outside Idaho. And of the $9.4 million in giving by businesses and groups, about $1.4 million came from candidate committees to other candidates.
• Among all contributors, the largest single donor was Democratic gubernatorial candidate A.J. Balukoff, who gave $3.6 million to his unsuccessful campaign; his campaign committee then gave $500,000 of that amount to the state Democratic Party. Balukoff’s spending, representing 17 percent of Idaho’s total, slightly skewed the overall state figures, inflating both the underlying prevalence of contributions to Democrats and Idaho’s overall rate of contributions relative to other states.
• Six organizations donated more than $100,000 to various races, all but one representing Idaho companies or business interests. The top corporate donor, Idaho Power, gave nearly $133,000 to candidates statewide, followed by Melaleuca, the Idaho Falls-based direct retail sales company, at just more than $111,000.
The outlier, ranked third, was Club for Growth, the Washington, D.C.-based conservative policy group whose entire contribution of $109,000 went to one candidate, Bryan Smith, who lost in a Republican primary against U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson.
“There are some overarching principles that we pay attention to, things like the economy and having a good business environment that provides for job creation and a good economy,” said Jeff Malmen, Idaho Power’s vice president of public affairs, regarding the company’s financial giving to candidates. “We do pay attention to the issues that impact our ability to reliably and affordably provide energy to our customers. It covers the gamut.”
Malmen said company’s political contributions “are not recovered in customer rates.” Idaho Power’s political giving, he said, “is dwarfed by our charitable and community giving” of more than $1 million a year, in addition to employee volunteerism.
Melaleuca spokesman Tony Lima said company CEO Frank VanderSloot was not available for comment. VanderSloot is a prolific contributor to state and national Republican candidates and was one of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential finance co-chairs.
• Of the nearly 2,400 organizations that donated in Idaho, the top 50 accounted for 30 percent of the giving by businesses and groups and 13 percent of overall giving. Those top 50 represent a broad range of industries and sectors.
• With outliers such as the Democratic Balukoff campaign excluded, partisan giving by corporate interests ran nearly 12 to 1 in favor of Republican candidates and causes.
• Among businesses and other organizations, out-of-state interests gave more than those from within Idaho, $4.4 million to $3.5 million, or 56 percent to 44 percent. The same core business sectors appear in each group’s top five, but in slightly different order.
Among Idaho firms, agriculture led, followed by the general business group, buoyed by Melaleuca’s individual largesse. The broad finance, insurance and real estate category was third, followed by the energy/natural resources and then the health sectors.
Outside Idaho, the top five sectors were led by energy and natural resources, then the finance/insurance group, agriculture, general business and health.
• The top corporate contributors from outside Idaho were Utah-based Select Health; Potlatch Corp. of Spokane; Altria, the Virginia-based tobacco company; Los Angeles-based Farmers Group insurance; and communications firm CenturyLink, which is based in Louisiana.
Altria maintains a web page on disclosure and also posts its campaign giving by state because transparency is “an important issue for shareholders,” said company spokesman David Sutton. In general, he said, Altria “supports candidates who understand the legislative and regulatory issues important to our companies.” In Idaho and elsewhere, the company has monitored legislative action on taxing its various products, which include smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes, or restricting where they can be used in public.
“When you look at the legislative landscape in Idaho over the past several years, there have been a number of issues like that that have been in play for us,” he said.
Sutton, like Idaho Power’s Malmen, noted Altria’s local charitable giving to Idaho as well: the company recently gave $25,000 to the local Red Cross for relief efforts related to the state’s ongoing wildfires.
Participating in the process
Jason Kreizenbeck, president of the Boise lobbying and government relations firm Lobby Idaho, has seen the issue from multiple angles as both a former head of government affairs for Micron and chief of staff to Gov. Butch Otter. His firm represents major corporate clients from Idaho and across the nation.
“We advise our clients that we think it’s important that they participate in the political process in accordance with Idaho law,” Kreizenbeck said. “We have a part-time citizen Legislature and it’s not easy to campaign in some of the more spread-out rural parts of the state. As campaigns can be expensive, we support them in the way that the law allows us to.
“Every time there is a greater understanding on the public’s behalf on how campaigns are financed, it always creates robust discussion. I don’t think it’s something that the people always pay attention to.”
But gaining influence or access need not come at a price. Back in 2008, LiCalzi gave Idaho lawmakers a survey asking them to rank which groups were the most effective and credible, and had the most impact on them. The top influencers were independent groups that don’t make donations but instead contribute information that helps decision makers decide policy.
“Giving campaign contributions has an effect. Spending money on lobbying has an effect. Having a good reputation has an effect also,” LiCalzi said. Donating to campaigns “isn’t the only way corporations or groups affect the legislature.”