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Groups seeking to promote or defeat this year's four ballot questions spent over $28 million, far more than any previous election, according to campaign finance reports filed this week.
The state's campaign and political finance office says the previous record of $16.1 million was set in 1992, when four questions were on the ballot, including ones dealing with recyclable packaging and taxing hazardous waste.
This year's total spending will likely grow: Reports submitted Wednesday only cover the period from Oct. 16 to Nov. 1. Ballot question committees will file updated reports Nov. 20.
Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a government watchdog group, says the record-setting spending is unsurprising since the ballot questions "affected the bottom line of powerful business interests." But she argued campaign spending reforms are needed.
"There should be restrictions of some kind so that you don't have deep-pocketed corporations with clear self-interest able to essentially drown out other speakers because they have so much money," Wilmot said. "You throw enough money at anything, you can defeat it. And that's one of the things we saw here."
Casino companies, which poured roughly $14 million into their successful effort to defeat the ballot question proposing to repeal the state's 2011 casino law, defended their spending Friday. They pointed to their promises to invest more than $2.6 billion and create 10,000 new casino-related jobs and 6,500 temporary construction jobs in Massachusetts.
"Three of the most successful and respected gaming companies internationally are poised to invest over $2.6 billion in Massachusetts," said Justine Griffin, spokeswoman for the pro-casino Coalition to Protect Massachusetts Jobs, which was financed by Wynn, MGM and Penn National Gaming, the state's three licensed gambling operators. "The spending on the ballot question was viewed by the companies as part of their commitment to Massachusetts, and they are pleased that the large majority of Massachusetts voters supported bringing gaming and its associated benefits here."
Meanwhile, anti-casino activists under the Repeal the Casino Deal campaign committee were vastly out-fundraised, spending $658,526 as of Nov. 1.
The casino fight was by far the most expensive of the four ballot questions placed before voters this year.
Even before the final tallies are in, the casino question spending reached $14.5 million, surpassing the $13 million record set in 2006 for a failed ballot initiative to allow wine sales in groceries.
More than half the money spent by casinos came in the final days before the election, allowing the Coalition to Protect Massachusetts Jobs to air thousands of television advertisements in the run up to the vote. Anti-casino activists spent $76,115 in the final days and never aired television ads.
The result? Massachusetts voters resoundingly rejected the proposal to repeal the state's 2011 casino law by a 20 percentage point margin.
Spending on the ballot question for bottle deposit expansion was the second priciest, coming in at about $10.3 million.
That question, which failed, would have extended the state's 5-cent bottle deposit on beer and soft drink containers to bottled water, sports drinks and other bottled beverages.
Opponents, including local supermarket chains and the Washington, D.C-based American Beverage Association, spent about $8.8 million. Supporters, including the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club, spent about $1.5 million as of Nov. 1.
The ballot question that successfully repealed a state law indexing the gas tax to inflation generated about $2.7 million in spending. And the question to allow most workers in the state to earn paid sick time, which also passed, generated just over $800,000 in spending.
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