Tens of thousands of dollars, possibly hundreds of thousands, have been spent over the past several months in an attempt to shape public opinion over the proposed City of St. George.
But the public has no way of knowing exactly how much was spent, what they spent it on or who contributed money because neither side was required by state law to report it.
The campaigns were inarguably political in nature. East Baton Rouge Parish government got involved to oppose the city, as did other groups.
Pro-St. George supporters declared it a matter of democracy. Opponents said it would financially devastate the parish tax base.
But what they raised and spent to get their message out is treated differently under law than a typical political campaign, such as those conducted by elected officials running for office or for recall elections and proposition votes.
In those cases, groups or officials that raise money have to disclose their donors and expenses. But for a city incorporation effort, financial disclosure isn’t mandated until the effort makes it to a ballot.
The St. George incorporation effort was more expensive and visible than previous incorporations in the past, because of both its size and its opposition.
Two clearly defined organizations emerged in the course of a year to curry favor one way or another with voters. The petition process was so laborious, requiring 17,859 signatures, that it required an educational campaign in itself to get people to sign. And opponents considered the stakes so high that they invested time, money and energy into their own campaign to make sure an election never happened.
At this point, the parish Registrar’s Office has determined the petition dead, saying it fell short 71 signatures, so there can be no election.
But St. George filed suit Friday challenging that declaration.
The Advocate this week asked both the St. George incorporators and anti-St. George group Better Together if they would be willing to disclose their expenses and donors.
Neither side revealed their donors. But Better Together provided a detailed list of its expenditures. St. George provided no details.
In total, Better Together revealed it raised and spent $45,454. Its biggest expense was mailers, costing a total of $18,500, to send pamphlets to every person who signed the petition in an effort to get them to remove their names from the petition.
Better Together spent $5,448 on yard signs, $5,000 on a poll, $3,500 on website development, $2,800 on printing, $2,451 on T-shirts and $1,700 on food and drinks for volunteers.
The group’s leaders says they hired no paid professionals to do canvassing but gave bonuses totaling $1,500 to top canvassers who were volunteering full time hours in the final days seeking withdrawal forms before the St. George petition was finalized.
They also gave volunteers $2,800 in total for data entry associated with their analysis and independent verification of the massive petition.
The group spent $725 on public records requests to obtain a copy of the petitions once they were submitted. Better Together also spent $430 on indoor signs and banners for events. The group also spent only $600 on an attorney, hired in the final days of their work who wrote a letter to the Registrar’s Office. “We are not disclosing the names of our donors,” said M.E. Cormier, a leader of Better Together. “From the very beginning when we started raising money we were asking for contributions with the understanding of anonymity. It would be inappropriate for us to renege on that promise.”
But she did disclose that total funding came from a total of 237 different donors. She said there were no major bank rollers, as suggested by their opponents.
“You can see from the number of donors that it’s just not plausible that we had some big financier,” she said.
St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey has previously said he thinks Better Together is actually a well-funded group backed by powerful Baton Rouge leaders and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.
BRAF helped pay for studies, along with the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, that were used as ammunition by opponents because they stated St. George would hurt the city-parish and would require tax increases. But Better Together leaders state they’ve received no financing or assistance from either organization.
Cormier said they provided their list of expenses, “because we have nothing to hide.”
Rainey declined to provide specifics on the pro-St. George group’s spending but said it operated on minimal funding.
“Our effort was grass roots, we operated the majority of this time with very little money and on a shoe string budget.”
Rainey said many of the donations it received were in-kind.
Better Together has similarly accused St. George of being generously funded, estimating that it has raised several hundreds of thousands of dollars at organized fundraisers.
The St. George group’s expenditures were evident over the past few months as hundreds of signs were placed in people’s yards. There also was a billboard on Interstate 12 that said, “Saint George City/Vote Yes/I’m In,” which directed people to their website.
St. George organizers also used mailers and robo calls and has previously acknowledged hiring professional canvassing companies to ask voters to sign the petition.
They also took out repeated ads in The Advocate, and ran radio advertisements, asking people to sign the petition seeking a vote on incorporation.
St. George leaders also hired a law firm, which filed suit on the group’s behalf Friday contesting the registrar’s declaration that the petition was short the necessary signatures to call an election.
Moreover, the St. George group hired a national CPA firm to examine their budget and issue a report declaring that St. George would be tax neutral.
Rainey said state law now in place is appropriate in not requiring groups to disclose and report fundraising efforts as they gather signatures to put an incorporation question on the ballot.
“This is just a grass-roots effort. It makes total sense this way,” Rainey said. “There’s nothing on the ballot yet, it’s just a group of people trying to make something happen.”
Bernie Pinsonat, a local pollster and political consultant, estimated that St. George likely spent anywhere between $50,000 to $150,000.
“They’ve been forced to spend a lot of money to counter what they call misinformation by the other side and to encourage people to sign the petition,” Pinsonat said. “Anytime you do a couple mailers, robocalls and polls, you’re spending five to six figures, maybe more.”
Clay Young, who has worked on local political campaigns, said both sides on the St. George issue benefited from free media coverage.
But he estimated St. George could have spent anywhere from “a couple hundred to $300,000 or more,” he said. He said had it gone forward to an election, the group could have ended up spending a million dollars to get voters on their side.
Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, said in the case of the St. George campaign, on both sides, it would make sense to require financial disclosure.
“In this case you had two groups that were organized for the purpose of working for or against this ballot,” he said. “I don’t think it would be a big leap for our society to put those organizations in line for disclosures.”
He noted that oversight boards and disclosure protocols are already in place for similar political efforts, so making adjustments to the law would not be difficult.
But Scott also cautioned against excessive disclosure requirements.
At the grass-roots level, he noted, many people are volunteering as a matter of exercising their free speech rights.
“You can’t make everyone who comments on the issue fill out a campaign finance report because suddenly they’re an organization,” Scott said. “But in this case, both sides are pretty identifiable.”
The guidelines for incorporation are often compared to a recall election or getting a proposition on a ballot because they both require signature gathering for petitions before an election can be called.
State law requires financial disclosure for groups supporting or opposing a proposition or filing a recall petition at the point that contributions or expenditures exceed $200.
Kathleen Allen, Ethics Administration Program administrator, said it’s unclear, however whether disclosures are required for money spent and received before the measures are secured on a ballot.
She also said it’s unclear if St. George would have had to retroactively disclose finances had they secured an election accounting for money spent and raised during the previous months.
Editor’s note: This article was changed on Sunday, June 28, to make it omit a reference to the Baton Rouge Area Chamber opposing the St. George incorporation although BRACdid help fund studies used by opponents.