Howard Rich is not a household name, and he is trying hard never to become one. But this New York-based real estate magnate and big-money player may well do more this fall to bring down state and local zoning and environmental regulations and to restrict state spending than any fifty conservative officeholders.
You won’t find Rich’s name on any official political contribution records. The estimated $11 million to $14 million he’s kicked in (so far) for state initiative campaigns in Arizona, California, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington comes through a cluster of organizations almost as obscure as he is. Among them: the Fund for Democracy, which he acknowledges is his personal front and which is located in the same lower Manhattan building that he lists as his address; Americans for Limited Government (ALG), which he chairs; Club for Growth State Action, which Rich also chairs and which shares ALG’s Chicago address; Montanans in Action, Oklahomans in Action, America At Its Best (or, according to some of its state filings, America at it’s Best), Colorado At Its Best (ditto), U.S. Term Limits, which he heads as president, and a handful of others.
But if this is some cross between self-effacement and stealth, the measures he’s bankrolling are mostly stealth. California’s Proposition 90, the Protect Our Homes Initiative on the November ballot, is advertised as a way to stop state and local governments from seizing private property by eminent domain and delivering it to private developers. It’s supposedly a response to last year’s Supreme Court decision, in Kelo v. New London, in which the Court ruled 5 to 4 that a city could condemn even viable homes and businesses for private urban redevelopment projects.
In fact Proposition 90, like similar measures in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada and Washington, is a Trojan horse. Its major target has nothing to do with Kelo or eminent domain. It’s aimed at “takings”–the alleged depreciation of property values through land-use regulations for any purpose but health or safety. Under the proposed measures, if a city were to decide that it doesn’t want any bar or liquor store within a mile of a school or college campus, or to shut down a porn shop as a public nuisance, the owners of that commercial property could sue for the depreciation of their property values–and sue not merely for its current value but for what it would have been worth if it had been converted. Similarly, if a state decides that, to prevent erosion or protect habitat, a vulnerable hillside should not be the site of a new housing development, or that a forest should not be clearcut, the owners of the property could demand compensation running into the millions. In effect, Proposition 90 and its siblings, which are opposed by a wide array of cities, counties and planning and environmental groups, would all but close the door to most future environmental and land-use controls.
Of the roughly $3.7 million raised so far for Proposition 90, much of it to pay signature-gathering firms, only a small fraction comes from within California. The rest, some $3.4 million, has come from the Fund for Democracy, Montanans in Action, Club for Growth State Action, Colorado At Its Best and Americans for Limited Government. In Arizona, Rich’s Fund for Democracy and Americans for Limited Government have so far kicked in $1.1 million. In Idaho, the total is $412,000. In Missouri, where the petitions were ruled invalid, the Rich groups spent $2.3 million on the effort. In Washington the total so far is $260,000. In Montana a state judge ruled that petitions for three Rich measures were gathered through “deceit, fraud and procedural noncompliance.”