Losing the Initiative


With Congress finally clearing out of town for a month’s recess, I thought I could relax a little, but then I saw the headline in Saturday’s Oregonian – the state’s largest paper, based in Portland: “N.Y. Cash Colors Oregon Ballot.”

Okay, I know this is money in politics at the state level – and in a state, moreover, that has something the federal government doesn’t have: ballot initiatives. But if you think congressional election races are tainted by big money, just take a look at what’s happened to the initiative process in those states – mostly west of the Missisippi – that allow them.

The Oregonian’s Dave Hogan and Betsy Hammond did some investigating and here’s what they found:

The most sweeping initiative on Oregon’s November ballot – a measure to cap state spending – is bankrolled by a New York real estate investor who has poured millions of dollars into similar government-limiting measures in 12 states this year, an analysis by The Oregonian shows.

Organizations controlled by Howard Rich, a Manhattan real estate owner with a longstanding interest in libertarian causes, have funneled more than $7.3 million into initiative campaigns, primarily to curb government and expand property rights.

In Oregon, $1.1 million from Americans for Limited Government and U.S. Term Limits, both tax-exempt groups headed by Rich, account for one-third of the money spent promoting all 10 measures that will appear on the Nov. 7 ballot.

People who live in states with initiatives – most especially California – are all too familiar with the transformation that’s taken over the initiative process. Collecting signatures for ballot propositions is now done almost exclusively by paid solicitors. The campaign costs of big initiatives can dwarf every other race in the state. (Two gambling initiatives on California’s 2004 ballot cost a combined $104 million.)

And much of the money – as in Oregon – is coming from people who live hundreds or thousands of miles away.

The Montana-based Institute on Money in State Politics has tracked this phenomenon for several years and has an excellent report on who funded initiatives around the country in the 2004 elections, if you’d like to see the dispiriting details.

The initiative process was conceived of as a way to bring more direct democracy to the people. But it’s been hijacked, big time. Yet another scrap of evidence that our form of government – at the state level as well as the federal – has evolved from a democracy into a dollarocracy.