Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

"Despite losses, property-rights fight is far from over"

This column from Bruce Ramsey ran in the Seattle Times back on November 15:
Initiative 933, the Washington Farm Bureau's property-rights measure, went down hard. At the beginning of the campaign, polls showed it winning 55 percent, but the "no" side outspent the "yes" side 10-to-1 on ads, and on Nov. 7 the measure received only 41 percent of the vote.

Four states — Washington, Idaho, California and Arizona — had ballot measures to protect owners from devaluation of their property through land-use regulation. Arizona's passed and the others didn't, for a fascinating array of reasons. This battle is not over. Regulatory takings remains a live issue in the West.

The four states with measures this year were following Oregon, which in 2004 passed the nation's first regulatory-takings measure to go into effect, Measure 37. Oregon is a liberal state, and it was notable that in the election when it favored John Kerry, 61 percent of Oregon voters approved Measure 37.

Oregon had been a pioneer in land-use regulation and had imposed the strictest rules in the West. Progressives had celebrated it. From all over America, they had made pilgrimages to Oregon and returned with praise. Landowners hated it, and in 2004 they put a knife in it.

This year, California's voters came close. Despite being outgunned on ads 10-to-1, Proposition 90 received 48 percent of the vote.

A similar measure did not come close in Idaho, however, which is notable for a state so conservative. But on Nov. 7, voters trounced Proposition 2, voting 76 percent "no."

What happened? Idaho's proposal wasn't more radical. The more radical ones were Oregon's and Washington's, which were retroactive. The others weren't.

Part of the answer was that Idaho's land-use rules were not as strict as Oregon's, and fewer landowners were angry about them. Part of it was the sponsor. Idaho's measure was put on the ballot by Laird Maxwell, the Idaho equivalent of Tim Eyman. Maxwell didn't have establishment support.

There was also the issue of outside influence. The ballot drives were seeded with cash from Americans for Limited Government, a group headed by a wealthy New York libertarian named Howard Rich. Opponents made an issue of this in all four states, but it made the most difference in Idaho.

"Out-of-state influence has never played well in Idaho," said Marc Johnson of the Boise office of the Gallatin Group, public-affairs consultants. Even Rich's surname worked against him. Said a Boise man in a letter to the Idaho Statesman newspaper: "We've been swamped by TV and press ads claiming that a wealthy New Yorker is funding Proposition 2 for greedy purposes."

In Idaho, where Republicans run the government, officeholders acted not like conservatives but like officeholders: They opposed Proposition 2, which would have reduced their authority. The state Chamber of Commerce opposed it. The Realtors opposed it. The money for their ad campaign, however, came largely from national environmental organizations — more out-of-state money. In the ads, the leaders of Idaho told the people: Don't' vote for this. And they didn't.

Also, said Suzanne Schaefer, director of the Idaho chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, which was neutral, "There was no campaign in support of it."

Arizona is also a conservative state, but it has a Democratic governor. There, Republican legislators mostly supported Proposition 207. A homeowners' group sponsored it. Business associations supported it. They didn't campaign for it, but they put their OK on it.

Arizona had a long ballot, including measures about tobacco, marriage, undocumented aliens and state lands. Proposition 207 didn't stand out. The environmental groups mostly spent their effort to pass the state lands measure, and Proposition 207 won 65 percent of the vote.

The result is that two states now protect property owners from regulatory takings: Oregon and Arizona. We shall see how it works.

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