The Takings Trap

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

In Today's Dispatch:


The Takings Trap: Kelo and Oregon's Measure 37

Exploiting the unpopular Kelo vs. New London Supreme Court decision, far-right ideologues are pushing a number of nearly identical ballot measures in dozens of states across the country as reforms to "protect our homes." The backers claim that their efforts will prevent big corporations from using eminent domain to seize people's homes. In reality, these faux populist measures -- backed almost entirely by one rich New York City developer -- will leave cities and counties powerless to protect the environment and strengthen communities in the face of sprawl development.

Undoubtedly, there have been abuses of eminent domain, but that doesn't mean commonsense reforms should be a vehicle for right-wing ideologues to eviscerate local citizens' power to rein in sprawl and encourage community revitalization. Sadly, that's exactly what's going on - the debate over Kelo has been hijacked by rightwing campaigns, backed almost entirely by one wealthy right-wing billionaire, that are designed to benefit fat cat developers at the expense of local citizens' right to govern their own communities.

But the rightwing campaign doesn't stop with restricting eminent domain, but includes a Trojan horse, additional anti-environmental provisions smuggled into ballot initiatives under the guise of "Kelo reform." Modeled on Oregon's disastrous Measure 37 (and model legislation from ALEC), these proposals play directly into the hands of large developers, while claiming to be populist proposals to fight the "special interests" ”“ special interests that are cynically funding these exact ballot measures.

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How Rich: The Man Behind the Takings Initiatives

Diving into the world of campaign finance and investigating the funders of the takings initiatives quickly reveals a number of organizations involved: Americans for Limited Government, America at Its Best, the Fund for Democracy, and Montanans in Action. What is odd, though, is that with more digging, they all appear to be funded and controlled by the same individual: New York Developer Howard Rich.

Rich is a libertarian rightwing bigwig and he's got deep pockets. The relationships between these key funding organizations is complex and hidden by a conscious effort to cover Rich's tracks. In California, the funding for the takings initiative has come from the Fund for Democracy, which is directly controlled by Rich. Additional money has come from Montanans in Action (MIA), whose name appears to be modeled on the Oregon organization. MIA has received money from Americans for Limited Government, which is controlled by Rich, but refuses to disclose its donors. MIA is under investigation in Montana for refusing to release the names of its backers.

Montanans in Action is running its own campaigns -- to impose a TABOR-style spending cap and to gut land-use planning laws. Meanwhile, another Montana-based organization -- America at its Best -- contributed heavily to help the measure qualify in Idaho. America at its Best is also contributing to hard-right efforts in Nebraska (including a TABOR-style campaign) where the state's campaign finance laws have forced the organization to disclose that its funding comes virtually exclusively through Americans for Limited Government -- the Howard Rich controlled organization.

In other words, we have three organizations whose funding is entirely controlled by Rich and a fourth organization financially connected to Rich that is refusing to release the names of its donors. But what we know for sure is that this rich New Yorker "[t]hrough a web of backing eminent-domain initiatives in Arizona, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma and Washington with $4 million" according to Capitol Weekly.

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Takings In Your State

As far-right funders like Howard Rich work across the country, dumping literally millions simply into qualifying these atrocious measures for ballots, progressives have experienced some good news and some bad news. Here's where the campaign stands in various states:

  • Arizona: The Arizona Home Owners Protection Effort (Arizona H.O.P.E.) has submitted signatures to qualify for the ballot, but is not yet certified for the ballot. The bulk of the funding for the effort comes from Howard Rich's Americans for Limited Government.
  • California: Howard Rich has moved a lot of money to California Proposition 90. The measure is qualified for the ballot. Opposition is being organized by the League of California Cities, California Fire Chiefs Association, California Police Chiefs Association, and California School Boards Association.
  • Idaho: Despite the fact that the legislature passed a Kelo bill, radical rightwingers are still pushing a ballot initative to consider regulations as takings. The measure qualified for the ballot. The measure is backed by the indirectly Rich-funded America At Its Best.
  • Missouri: Missourians in Charge, which promoted both a Measure 37 clone and a TABOR-style spending cap, has been rebuffed and both measures have been tossed from the ballot due to failures to follow state law in signature gathering. Missourians in Charge is challenging the decision in Court.
  • Montana: Montanans in Action spent over $600,000 and turned in tens of thousands of signatures to qualify three measures including a Measure 37 clone. The signatures are not yet certified.
  • Oregon: This is the state where Measure 37 passed and the impacts have been painful. Local governments are overwhelmed with new paperwork and the law is being exploited -- not what the voters pictured when they passed it.
  • Washington: I-933 has qualified for the ballot. Citizens for Community Protection is organizing in opposition. As in other places, the people behind I-933 are funded largely by Howie Rich.

In a handful of other states, measures are moving forward that simply alter the ways eminent domain can be used, but do not include the truly heinous Measure 37 provisions modeled on Oregon's disastrous initiative:

  • Colorado: A bill restricting eminent domain passed the legislature and was signed by Governor Bill Owen. A measure to refer the issue to voters was killed.
  • Michigan: A measure referred by the legislature to the ballot amends the Constitution to prevent Kelo style eminent domain use, while not providing for the Measure 37-style restrictions on local regulations.
  • North Dakota: Citizens to Restrict Eminent Domain (C-RED) is working to qualify an initiative to prevent Kelo style eminent domain use in North Dakota. The signatures need to be gathered by mid-August.

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Eye on the Right

What is perhaps most amazing about the takings movement is that their strategy documents exist in full view of the public even as their on-the-ground organizers claim to be part of grassroots operations. In reality, the effort to make property rights absolute -- ignoring potential costs to human health and the environment -- is an extremely well-funded and well-coordinated effort. The Community Rights Council reports that legal foundations dedicated to advancing the theory have a combined budget of over $15 million. Meanwhile, the Reason Foundation (another Howard Rich-funded organization) explicitly laid out a strategy of using crafted outrage from the Kelo decision as cover to push their radical legal theories.

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Matt Singer
Editor, Stateside Dispatch