HELENA — A tobacco company spent $5 million in less than 20 days to defeat a Montana ballot initiative to raise the state’s tobacco tax, countered by $2.7 million raised by initiative supporters in the final weeks before the election, according to new campaign finance reports.
The fight over whether to raise the tobacco tax by $2 a pack and extend the state’s Medicaid expansion program has become one of the most expensive ballot initiative campaigns in the state’s history.
The cash loans and in-kind donations by Altria Client Services, the lobbying arm of the makers of Marlboro cigarettes, now total more than $17 million to the committee organized to defeat the tax measure, according to campaign finance reports filed Monday.
RAI Services Company, the lobbyists for the corporation that makes Camel cigarettes, is the effort’s other main funder with $295,831 donated.
Campaign finance reports show the ballot committee, Montanans Against Tax Hikes, used the tobacco companies’ money to buy $3.4 million worth of broadcast, digital and newspaper ads between Oct. 3 and Oct. 13.
Charles Denowh, the treasurer of Montanans Against Tax Hikes, has said the committee is running an aggressive campaign to fight what would be a large new tax increase that doesn’t allocate enough money to pay for continuing the Medicaid expansion program.
Backers of the tax increase have been unable to match that kind of spending, but they have been helped by the Montana Hospital Association’s $5.4 million in contributions. Labor unions and an advocacy group called the Fairness Project have also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of the initiative.
They say the Medicaid expansion program, which enrolls about 96,000 people, saves the state millions by keeping enrollees off traditional Medicaid and through the premiums the customers buy.
Amanda Cahill, a lobbyist for the American Heart Association, said the tobacco industry doesn’t actually care about the state budget.
“This is an obscene amount of out of state corporate money all for the pursuit of profits over the lives of Montanans,” she said.
Montanans Against Tax Hikes raised and spent $5 million total between Sept. 27 and Oct. 17, and had $2.5 million in the bank three weeks before the election. Healthy Montana for I-185, the committee of initiative supporters, raised $2.7 million, spent $3.1 million and had $179,000 left, according to reports filed with the state Commissioner of Political Practices.