Stealth campaigns threaten our democracy

 

This election season in the West already looks as hot as a wildfire running on a dry wind. High-profile campaigns target congressional seats and governorships. But beware: The most important campaign runs in stealth mode.

It's the campaign by libertarians who want to cripple your state and local governments. They're doing it with ballot initiatives, appealing directly to voters. Their goals include limiting taxes in ways that would undermine government services, ousting judges who make unpopular rulings, imposing term limits on legislators.

The campaign has local supporters, but it's largely political spin by libertarian activists from outside the region. The campaign's most intrusive arm would strangle land-use regulations. An examination of it reveals the pattern.

Libertarians believe many common regulations on real estate, such as zoning and subdivision limits, unfairly reduce property values. They call it "regulatory takings." They want governments to compensate all the owners, or back off. It may sound fair enough. But here's how the principle works: If you could fit 20 houses on your land, plus a junkyard and a gravel mine, and the government limits you to six houses, then the government must pay you whatever profit you would reap on the rest of the developments. Of course, no government can afford to pay you, so regulations would be waived and you could do the maximum development, no matter what your neighbors think of it.

Libertarians push such regulatory-takings initiatives in Washington, Idaho, Montana, California, Arizona and Nevada. Americans for Limited Government, a Chicago-area group, and the Fund for Democracy, based in New York City, have funneled more than $2.75 million into the initiatives so far. That money hired petition-circulating companies that got as much as $4 per signature, persuading registered voters to put the initiatives on the November ballot.

To sell the idea, the takings initiatives cloak themselves in another issue — the government's "eminent domain" power. Governments use eminent domain occasionally, to condemn property and force the owners to accept a buyout, to make new roads, urban renewal and other projects that benefit the public. Eminent domain is the most unpopular government power, due to a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as the Kelo case. The court said a Connecticut city can use eminent domain to condemn a few homes, to make room for a drug manufacturer's plant. That ruling set off anger and hysteria over eminent domain.

Taking advantage of it, the initiatives in five states combine limits on eminent domain with the regulatory-takings idea. In the sixth, Washington, the initiative's preamble cites the eminent domain issue. The initiatives have alarmist titles like "Protect Our Homes" and "People's Initiative to Stop the Taking of Our Land" — as if the government is about to sweep in with bulldozers everywhere. Yet governments use eminent domain on behalf of developers only a few thousand times per year, nationwide. If the takings principle becomes law, it would choke off governments' ability to pass any new land-use protections from now on, affecting millions of property owners.

Libertarians persuaded Oregon voters to approve such an initiative, titled Measure 37, in 2004. Oregon had tough regulations that needed some loosening, but Measure 37 blew huge holes in its system for protecting landscapes, the environment and neighborhoods.

Now, thousands of Oregonians have crises summed up by Renee Ross. Ross lives on 32 acres south of Portland. She thought Measure 37 was a good idea. But two of her neighbors have filed Measure 37 claims: One wants to build houses on 60 acres, and the other wants to dig a gravel mine on 80 acres. Handcuffed by the measure, her county government waived regulations and OK'd both schemes. Ross worries most about the mine.

"Our atmosphere is totally peaceful — the birds, the creek rambling through our property," Ross says. "When they start up (the gravel mine), it'll be within 200 feet of our house. They'll be doing blasting, and they'll run a rock-crushing machine. It'll also be trucks backing up, the beep-beep-beep. The sound will echo. We're devastated. ... We went from having a very strict land-use policy to having no policy. I don't mind if you do whatever you want on your land, as long as it doesn't hurt someone else's life."

If you live in any of the states that have takings initiatives, and someday you might want a new regulation to preserve your neighborhood, or to put conditions on a Super Wal-Mart, or to protect streambanks, or to require developers to do anything for open space and affordable housing, you would be wise to vote "no" in November. As with all the different libertarian initiatives, if you side with people who don't believe in government, you'll get a lousy government.

Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the paper's Northern Rockies editor based in Bozeman, Montana.

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