With last month's vote to put a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage to voters in 2012, Minnesota groups on both sides of the issue are warming up their fundraising machines.
"What concerns me about the upcoming constitutional amendment debate is all the secret money" that will be raised out of state, said Mike Dean of Common Cause Minnesota. "It's going to be a dirty, dirty campaign."
A History of Financial Secrecy
A campaign finance watchdog group warns that the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), which is allied to a state anti-gay marriage group, has worked to hide who funded their campaigns in the past.
The Minnesota Family Council (MFC), the state's leading anti-gay marriage group, estimated the cost of their campaign as between $4 and $6 million. If past campaigns in other states are any indicator, a large proportion of that funding will come from out-of-state funders through the National Organization for Marriage. MFC did not return requests for comment.
"NOM looks forward to supporting the campaign and lending our expertise and resources to those of allies in the state," said a press release from the group's president, Brian Brown, issued following last month's vote to put the issue in front of voters in the Minnesota House of Representatives.
NOM did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the organization's plans to raise money. While NOM has litigated in the past to avoid disclosing its donors, evidence occasionally emerges that large portions of its budget seem to come from church-affiliated organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus.
If Minnesota's 2012 campaign will be anything like Maine's 2009 battle over same-sex marriage, much of the money involved could come from out of state, particularly for groups opposing same-sex marriage. Reports filed with Maine's campaign finance watchdog show that the Maine group leading efforts against same-sex marriage received the lion's share of its donations from large organizations outside of Maine, chiefly from the National Organization for Marriage and the Catholic Archdiocese of Portland.
"The National Organization for Marriage has a long history of trying to circumvent disclosure laws across the country," Dean said.
In order to hide the prospective millions they could raise, Dean said, NOM and the MFC could set up a particular kind of non-profit known as a 501(c)(4), which does not have to disclose its specific sources of revenue, but is limited in the kind of campaigning it can do.
"So long as they don’t say 'vote for’ or ‘against’ the amendment, they don’t have to disclose their donors' names," Dean said.
The problem for a group like NOM is that reliance on out-of-state fundraising raises many voters' hackles, and would open the pro-amendment campaign up to charges that they did not represent Minnesotans.
Minnesota for Marriage—a group created by NOM, the MFC and the Minnesota branch of the Roman Catholic church—has filed with the state as a group that will be actively courting voters to support or reject the proposed amendment. It will have to disclose donors.
Anti-Amendment Groups Focus Fundraising in State
Dean acknowledged that the same strategy of hiding donors could be used by anti-amendment groups, particularly as poll data suggests that a slim majority of Minnesotans oppose the amendment.
"If they’re able to make this the Waterloo for the gay marriage debate, the national LGBT community is going to want to invest a lot of resources in this," Dean said.
It's easy for large organizations to avoid transparency laws, Dean said, but OutFront Minnesota and its national partners don't have a history of doing that in the past. Anti-amendment groups have already filed with the state to form Minnesotans United for All Families, which is chaired by Monica Meyers of OutFront Minnesota.
Minnesota LGBT leaders claim they will likely not be using much out-of-state dollars, chiefly because there are aren't many national LGBT groups that can raise that much money for one of a possible six states debating same-sex marriage at the ballot box.
"Multi-billion-dollar [fundraising] apparatuses just don’t exist in our community," said said state Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis), who opposes the amendment. "Take our biggest [LGBT] organization, the Human Rights Campaign, compared to religious groups, it's still small. We have much less firepower compared to the other side."
In Maine, groups opposing the marriage ban raised over $4 million to support their cause, but only about $215,000 of that came from national LGBT groups, along with about $145,000 of "in-kind" campaign expenses.
Minnesota anti-amendment leaders say they have not yet started significant fundraising efforts because they were focused on the legislative votes to put the amendment on the ballot, but they estimate their campaign would also cost between $4 and $6 million.
"We have been doing a little bit of fund-raising behind the scenes, but it hasn’t been a big effort yet," said OutFront Executive Director Monica Meyer. "We'll be having conversations [...] about how we’re going to bring in investment, and a few big donors from around the country."
Meyer said the organization's goal was for most money to be raised in the state.
Equality Maine Executive Director Betty Smith said most of her organization's $4 million war chest in 2009 came from large numbers of Mainers making small donations. With five or six expected fights over similar proposals in other states, national organizations will be stretched thin.
"There's a limited amount of money to go around," said Smith."The state that raises the most money through this small and mid-level [donation] strategy will have the kind of stamina for their campaign."