Out-of-state activists mastermind assault on government spending and judiciary


Voters in at least five Western states will face ballot measures this fall targeting state spending and the judiciary. These measures, like many of the land-use initiatives in play in the West, are sponsored by state organizations whose names suggest that they are homegrown efforts — names such as Montanans in Action and Stop OverSpending Nebraska. But also like the land-use initiatives, many of these measures are masterminded, and funded, by out-of-state libertarian activists. And if they pass, they will do much more than advertised (HCN, 7/24/06: Taking Liberties).

Supporters of Oregon’s Measure 48 call it the "Rainy Day Amendment," because it would allow the state to put some money in a rainy-day fund. The core of the measure, however, is a formula for strictly limiting government spending. According to the Oregonian, libertarian kingpin and New York real estate mogul Howard "Howie" Rich put up more than 85 percent of the money to get that measure, and a second measure that would reinstate term limits for state legislators, on the Oregon ballot.

In Montana, voters will consider Constitutional Initiative 97, billed as a way to "Stop OverSpending." Initiatives in Nebraska and Oklahoma will bear the same name. It’s no coincidence: a Chicago-area libertarian group, Americans for Limited Government, funds both of them. Howie Rich is chairman of its board.

Nebraska.StatePaper.com reports that "Virtually all of the money to support the amendment … has come from America at Its Best." That organization, based in Montana, has been funneling money to libertarian shell organizations nationwide.

Based on failure

Ironically, the inspiration for these state spending initiatives is a Colorado measure that has been denounced, even by one-time supporters, as a resounding failure.

Passed by Colorado voters in 1992, the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) strictly limited state government revenue and spending, based on population growth and inflation; it mandated voter approval of revenue increases; and it banned certain taxes. Voters adopted it as a way of controlling state spending. That it did, but as the limitations accumulated and the economy cooled off in 2001, the state faced a funding crisis.

Lee Thielen, executive director of the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials, says the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment "lost almost all of its funding" during the TABOR years, and local health districts were hard-hit as well. Pre-TABOR, the state laboratory would provide testing free of charge to local districts that needed answers on potentially serious public health issues, such as a possible rabies find. But that ended with TABOR, and "there were a lot of tests that should have been done that were simply never done."

Local health districts responsible for water, air, septic and other environmental issues — as well as health care, including prenatal and communicable disease issues — drastically reduced their services. "Water-quality control was absolutely decimated," Thielen says.

Education, too, took a huge hit. Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, R, was one of TABOR’s strongest advocates. But in 2005, Owens joined business interests and public service advocates in urging voters to suspend the measure. Even though they faced a large tax increase if that happened, voters agreed. By a slim margin, they approved Referendum C, which suspends TABOR’s spending restrictions for five years.

Attack on the judiciary

Four Western states will also consider measures that declare an intent to rein in "activist" or "out of control" judges. But again, the sales pitch doesn’t tell the whole story. In most Western states, judges are elected, meaning that voters are free to oust them at the end of their terms. Many Western states also allow recall of judges under some circumstances. But several of the initiatives on the ballot this year would provide outside activists more avenues to launch political or legal campaigns against judges who issue decisions with which they disagree.

In Montana, Constitutional Initiative 98 would allow a recall for any reason at all. The measure’s in-state coordinator, Trevis Butcher, is treasurer of Montanans in Action, the front group for the anti-land-use planning initiative in that state.

Colorado and Oregon voters will consider relatively tame judiciary initiatives. Colorado’s Amendment 40 would set a 12-year (three term) limit on appellate judges. A group of Republican state legislators appear to be among its chief backers. Oregon’s Initiative 24 would provide that appellate judges be elected from districts around the state. That measure, a repeat of a similar proposal from 2002, is supported by Loren Parks, a longtime Oregon businessman who since 2002 has lived in Henderson, Nev.

Parks is also a key donor in a South Dakota judicial measure, possibly the most sweeping and extreme of all. Constitutional Amendment E would create a randomly selected "Special Grand Jury" that would set its own standards of review, then examine the actions of judges and others in the state operating in a "judicial capacity." If it finds violations of its self-determined standards, it would indict these people, levying fines and even jail time. According to South Dakota Attorney General Larry Long, citizens serving on juries, school boards, city councils and county commissions, as well as judges and prosecutors, would all be vulnerable. The proposed amendment is retroactive, so the grand jury would have the power to go after people for decisions made many years ago.

Its chances of passing in South Dakota are unclear, but the proposal’s supporters have much bigger plans. Amendment E grew out of "Judicial Accountability Initiative Law" (J.A.I.L.), the brainchild of Ron Bramson, a minister and self-proclaimed member of the "New Patriot Movement," who has had extensive run-ins with the Los Angeles court system. Bramson, has tried and failed to put his proposal on the California ballot, but now declares on his Web site, "Our goal is to first take South Dakota by storm, then the other states by fall-out. What begins in California sweeps the nation."

The author writes from Carlton, Oregon.