NEW YORK – He lives in New York City; his name is on no ballot. Yet real estate investor Howard Rich is a key reason citizens in distant states will be voting Nov. 7 on bitterly contested initiatives that would limit state spending, impose term limits and curb land-use regulation.
Rich is a libertarian who vigorously champions the cause of limited government. He is the driving force behind a network of groups that has promoted ballot measures in at least 14 states this year.
Several of the campaigns were derailed by legal and signature-gathering problems. But states where Rich-backed measures did make the ballot – often with most of their funding from his network – include Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Nebraska, Oregon and Washington.
His adversaries view Rich as a menace, deploying large sums of money to export a potentially harmful ideology to states where he has no personal stake. Others see him as a committed political philanthropist, acting on his convictions in ways that are a legitimate part of U.S. democracy.
Rich declines to provide financial details of his efforts and his donor list. The liberal Ballot Initiative Strategy Center – a critic of Rich – said this week the total spending by his affiliated groups on 2006 ballot measures has exceeded $13.2 million.
Agreeing to answer questions only by e-mail, Rich said he had followed all campaign finance rules. In the states where he helped put property-rights measures on the ballot, he wrote, “I do not own any property and will not personally profit in any way.”
The Rich-backed initiatives fit three categories:
. Imposing lids on state spending in Maine, Nebraska and Oregon, with budget levels tied to population growth and inflation. One state, Colorado, approved such a Taxpayer Bill of Rights measure in 1992, but in November voters there suspended it for five years to ease the impact of spending cuts.
. Imposing term limits on state legislators in Oregon and judges in Colorado’s two highest courts. The Colorado measure would force the retirement of five of the seven Supreme Court justices and seven of the 19 appeals court judges in 2009.
. Requiring state and local governments in Arizona, California, Idaho and Washington to compensate property owners if a land-use regulation lowers property values. Supporters say the measures provide justice for landowners hamstrung by strict development restrictions, such as bans on subdivision.
“This is not something that is going to fade away,” Rich said of the property rights movement. “Government bureaucrats will be denied the abusive powers they have been exercising so lavishly.”
But what Rich depicts as a quest for liberty, his angry critics see as a backdoor way of paralyzing government so big companies and big developers can do whatever they want.
Oregon voters passed a “regulatory takings” measure in 2004 similar to the land-use measures Rich is backing in this election. Since then, Oregon property owners there have filed 2,700 claims seeking $6 billion in compensation, prompting authorities to waive land-use rules in many cases rather than engage in costly litigation.
This year’s four regulatory takings measures are being fought by alliances of conservation groups, local officials and others who say the proposals would impede the government’s ability to protect people.
In an editorial this month, The News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash., said Rich’s property rights measures relied on a “bait-and-switch” strategy.
“They promise to protect voters against out-of-control government officials but instead leave them practically defenseless against what their neighbors might decide to build next door,” it said.
In Maine, Nebraska and Oregon, the governors are among those opposing the spending limits.
“It is unacceptable that the big-money, national anti-government extremists would use our state as a testing ground for their agenda,” said Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, warning that approval of the measure would mean cutbacks to education, social services and law enforcement.
Rich, who has not taken up Kulongoski’s invitation to debate, said the main foes of spending caps are public-sector unions seeking to preserve their clout.
“The opposition,” Rich wrote, “can be characterized as based on greed and self-interest, the public be damned.”
In some states, groups circulating Rich-backed petitions were accused of fraudulent tactics, and a Montana judge invalidated three different measures. Rich, in turn, says the petition efforts were subjected to harassment and even sabotage; he contends that a left-wing activist in Michigan signed a petition 14 times in a deliberate bid to invalidate it.
Rich, 66, is chairman of Americans for Limited Government and founder of U.S. Term Limits. He serves on the board of the Cato Institute and the Club for Growth, both advocates of limited government and lower taxes.
John Matsusaka, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, said his concerns about Rich center on the use of tax-exempt groups which don’t have to disclose donors’ names.
“The financing is really opaque – it smells bad,” Matsusaka said. “But I don’t think we should be particularly troubled by this. All he’s doing is giving the voters a choice – he’s not forcing them to take it.”