Money is flooding into the 2018 races for Grant County Public Utility District Commissioner positions, and with more than two months left before the election, this year’s campaign contributions are on track to outstrip every race for the utility district in over a decade.
Over $89,000 has been raised so far between the four candidates currently running for two commissioner positions. One of those candidates, incumbent Terry Brewer, has only raised $1,300, with the rest of the election’s contributions divided almost evenly among the three remaining candidates.
Almost a third of the money that has come into the utility district races this year have come from a single contributor, nonprofit advocacy group Ag Power Users of Grant County, which has donated roughly $15,000 each to Nelson Cox and Judy Wilson.
This level of contribution from a single-entity is not unprecedented in the utility district’s commissioner races, and public utility district races are one of the few elections governed by state law that don’t limit campaign contributions. In 2008, Quincy-based public relations and marketing firm Lubach Communications made nearly $34,500 in contributions to commissioner candidates Donald Long and Thomas Flint.
What is unprecedented, however, is the level of cash that has flowed into the 2018 race: while Lubach Communications gave in-kind contributions in the form of discounted marketing and consulting services, Ag Power Users of Grant County gave candidates cash contributions to spend in the course of their campaigns.
Ag Power Users of Grant County has given political contributions before, dating back to 2010, but never on this scale. The organization had made a total of $5,600 in political contributions before the 2018 elections, with the largest single donation totaling $1,800.
The ballooning contribution was paid for by donations from membership, said the advocacy group’s president, Travis Meacham.
“Nothing has necessarily changed,” Meacham said, referring to the group’s financial capacity. “We’ve been building our funds for a number of years looking for an opportunity to put proper candidates in there. This year we felt compelled to get behind a couple candidates a little bit stronger.”
The group is a nonprofit registered in Washington state as Ag Water and Power Users of Grant County. Meacham said in an interview Wednesday that the group is a “503(c)(4),” though no such section exists in U.S. Internal Revenue Code.
Meacham could not be reached before deadline to clarify whether he was referring to a 501(c)(4) corporation, a tax-exempt nonprofit which can make donations to political campaigns. The Internal Revenue Service, however, has no publicly available record of a tax-exempt organization with either the name Ag Power Users of Grant County or Ag Water and Power Users of Grant County.
Corporate donations aren’t the only large source of cash coming into the commissioner races — Patti Paris has provided her own campaign with its largest single contribution, roughly $14,220.
While donations from candidates into their own campaigns have frequently been the largest donation from an individual in these commissioner races, Paris’ contribution to her 2018 campaign thus far is the largest candidate-contribution in over a decade.
Brewer, whose campaign funds are dwarfed by those of his opponents, said in an interview Wednesday that he has not been and will not be fundraising this campaign cycle. Brewer swore off fundraising after initially being elected to the utility district 12 years ago, he said, and what money has come in has been unsolicited.
Brewer said that the large cash contributions by Ag Power Users of Grant County to Cox and Wilson are due to a contentious relationship he’s had with the group over the utility district’s cost-of-service-based rate schedule.
As of three years ago, Brewer said, the utility district has aimed to charge no less than 20 percent below cost for irrigation customers. In recent years, however, irrigators have been charged 45 percent below cost, and the utility district’s choice to offer a smaller discount has created discontent with Ag Power Users of Grant County, Brewer said.
“If you sit where I am, you see the flood of money to two candidates for commissioner seats, one of which is my opponent, and the money is coming from irrigators,” Brewer said. “If they get a majority position on the board again, they can probably have things their way again.”