Kristina Wilfore is the executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC), and one of the country’s leading experts on state politics and policy. Kristina works with state and national progressive organizations to reinvigorate the initiative process by providing both targeted research on the effects of ballot measures, and strategic guidance to key initiative campaigns. She keeps her eye on Howie Rich at www.HowieRichExposed.com.
Dick Cheney. Karl Rove. Grover Norquist. We have all become too familiar with the modern masterminds of conservative strategy and their favorite tools: division, suspicion, and cynicism. These gurus of the right wing have been the subject of countless media profiles, discussed, lauded and lamented for their substantial political prowess. They plot not in secret, but in the most public American sphere besides Hollywood: national politics in Washington.
Yet there is one mastermind about whom we know even less. His name is Howard “Howie” Rich. This year he is attempting to drastically change the constitutions of 12 different states across the country. And he doesn’t want you to know about it.
Howie's Hit List
States that are under assault by Howie Rich's initiatives
Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon
Regulatory “Takings” Targets
Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Washington
Colorado, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota
Who is Howie Rich? We know he is a real estate investor from New York City. We know he is among the leadership of some of the most radical libertarian organizations in the country, including Americans for Limited Government, Club for Growth, Social Security Choice, and US Term Limits. We know he shares his friend Grover Norquist’s vision of drowning government “in the bathtub.” And we know that in 2006, he and his allies are attempting to achieve that vision by funding a massive package of anti-government ballot initiatives in 12 states across the country.
Howie’s strategy involves legislative gimmicks that sound so complex they can easily escape notice. He and his conservative compatriots are masters at using deceptive language to appeal to populist sensibilities while in reality they push a radical economic agenda. This year, the three-headed monster includes so-called “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” (TABOR) gimmicks; pay-or-waive measures; and a handful of initiatives aimed at weakening state judicial systems.
The idea exploited by TABOR initiatives is that most people don’t understand where their taxes go, and don’t like to pay them. However, most Americans do recognize that road repair, fast emergency response times, quality schools, and other public services are worthy of their tax dollars. But the TABOR gimmick uses superficial anti-tax rhetoric to advance a policy that strangles core priorities for average citizens, with dangerous results.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, TABOR laws generally include the following three characteristics: they take the form of constitutional amendment; they restrict revenue or expenditure growth to a formula of inflation plus population change; and they mandate direct voter approval to override the revenue or spending limits.
Colorado, the only state to have lived under TABOR, teetered on the edge of bankruptcy after 13 years of drastic TABOR budget cuts. Priorities like education, health care, emergency services, and highway safety withered under the law's stranglehold. Voters in Colorado chose to suspend the law in 2005 to allow core services to recover. Yet even as Colorado turned away from TABOR, Howie Rich and his Libertarian network pushed the issue in 25 states. Most legislators were smart enough to recognize a gimmick when they saw one, so Howie turned to the ballot initiative process to pass TABOR.
TABOR is not your typical tax battle. Usually, state chambers of commerce line up on the anti-tax side, and those who want to fund important state priorities line up on the other. But TABOR turns off even the usual tax-limitation enthusiasts, who deride it as dangerous in its wholly cynical view of government. Progressive activists, meanwhile, have pulled out all the stops to keep TABOR out of their states. Two governors—Oregon’s Ted Kulongoski and Montana’s Brian Schweitzer—have challenged Howie Rich to public debates on TABOR, to no avail.
Howie’s cronies have made keeping state constitutions TABOR-free somewhat easier. Allegations of signature fraud, sloppy fiscal notes, single-subject ballot language violations and other mischief have followed the initiatives all over the country. TABOR was stripped from the ballot in Missouri, Montana Oklahoma, Ohio, Michigan, and Nevada. A legal challenge is pending in Nebraska. But in Maine and Oregon, it is on the ballot.
Howie Rich faces significant questions about his intentions around what he and his cronies call "regulatory takings." This dangerous and extreme law would actually require government to pay people to obey state regulations. If the state can't afford to pay, the regulation is waived. The initiatives exploit the rhetoric of “property rights” and the frustration following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Kelo v. City of New London—that local governments can use eminent domain laws to seize property for private interests—to attempt to sneak this pay-or-waive scheme onto the ballot.
As reporter Ray Ring put it in the San Francisco Chronicle, “If you could fit 20 houses on your land, plus a junkyard and a gravel mine, and government regulations limit you to six houses, then the government would have to pay you whatever profit you would have made on the unbuilt houses, junkyard and mine. Of course, the government can't afford to pay you, so it would have to drop its regulations, allowing the maximum development, no matter what your neighbors think.”
In fact these provisions are not "takings" at all, but more like "givings." They give special rights to big landowners and developers, whose demands for compensation cannot be met by local governments, and who will use the new laws to remove all barriers to runaway sprawl. The measures will appear on the ballot in California, Arizona, Idaho, and Washington. Courts in Nevada and Montana recently kicked the provisions off the ballot, also for fraud and other misdeeds.
What are the consequences of regulatory takings? Look no further than Oregon. They passed a pay-or-waive law in 2004 called Prop 37, which has resulted in a gridlock of claims for compensation totaling more than $3 billion! Naturally, Oregon can't pay for all of them. And that is the whole point. Howie Rich doesn't want government to pay citizens to obey the law—he wants the laws that protect your community to be eliminated. The sad reality is that regulatory takings will remove all barriers to unmitigated growth and destroy the things Americans love best about their state environments—good fishing, safe and clean water, access to public lands, open space and more.
Attacks on the Judiciary
The third goodie in Howie Rich’s anti-government care package is a series of initiatives that seek to weaken judicial systems in four states. Using the conservative hysteria surrounding the myth of “activist judges,” Howie’s cronies purport to be in favor of accountability within the judicial system. Yet these campaigns’ connections to TABOR and regulatory takings cast them in a different light—another well-funded slice of the anti-government pie.
In Colorado, the ballot initiative would set up term limits for judges—and make it retroactive for judges already on the bench. The law would essentially write pink slips for 12 sitting judges, and clear off most of the Colorado Supreme Court in just a couple of years.
In Oregon, Howie's initiative would create geographic districts for the Oregon Supreme Court. The measure targets a handful of sitting justices from the Portland area. What does Howie Rich, sitting in New York City, gain by throwing state judges out of office 3,000 miles from home?
A Montana judge blocked a judicial recall initiative from appearing on the ballot (along with TABOR and Regulatory Takings), though appeals are still pending. The measure would have created a new layer of recall elections to kick judges out for specific decisions. The law would have been a recipe for chaos in Montana's judicial system. The natural result would have been myriad recall elections proposed by anyone holding a grudge from a ruling that did not go their way.
Perhaps Howie Rich is in his apartment in Soho right now, frustrated that his clumsy shell games blocked his dreams of being grouped with the lizard kings of the conservative movement. The difference is that Dick, Karl and Grover have until now successfully avoided bad days in court. Howie’s grand ballot initiative strategy was too obviously rife with hidden money, shadowy players, and dirty tactics all designed to surreptitiously hijack the direct democracy process in multiple states.
Unfortunately, we know one final thing about this mysterious multimillionaire, and progressives should take this fact as fair warning. Howie Rich views 2006 as simply the first salvo in an open-ended and unprecedented push toward dismantling state governments across America. He will smooth out his processes, put another coat of shiny varnish on his gimmicks, and we will feel his presence again for many elections to come.