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Taking Liberties 

One ballot initiative uses the back-door approach

The corner of Sixth Avenue and Congress Street was roasting, as a sunburnt couple tried to scratch up some shade. Then they spotted me standing in front of the Crescent Tobacco Shop.

Or rather, they saw a signer-in-waiting.

They were petition passers, pulling down $10 per page for the signatures of Arizona citizens. Less clear, however, was just what their petition aimed to do, and who was funding their foray into summer's dog days.

The petition-passers weren't much help in this regard. "Registered voter?" asked the man, smoothing his long beard hopefully. Then he proffered a clipboard. Called the Private Property Protection Act, his petition draws its gumption from Kelo v. City of New London, a recent U.S. Supreme Court case where the court ruled that cities can seize properties through eminent domain, and then award them to another private party.

But the petition's last line was a kicker. The proposed law would ensure "that Arizona citizens receive just compensation if they lose their property or lose the value of their property when government takes or enacts a law that diminishes the value of private property."

In the business, that's called a taking. And it's the righteous target of right-wingers across the nation. Now, say critics, those conservatives are exploiting anger over the Kelo case to sneak far more extreme measures into law--such as the one being offered on this downtown corner.

This one is being pushed by a group called the AZ Home Owners Protection Effort, or AZ HOPE.

These petitions received enough signatures to be placed on the ballot as Proposition 207. But if passed by voters, it could hobble governments' ability to preserve open space, protect endangered species and enact zoning changes. It could also halt countless protection efforts--including Pima County's Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

For example, a similar measure passed two years ago in Oregon requires the state and counties to compensate land owners whenever developing their property is restricted. To date, Oregon landowners have filed compensation claims reportedly topping $2.5 billion. Unable to pay such sums, counties are instead allowing development into rural areas once restricted to farming.

Apparently concerned that such a takings initiative wouldn't outright pass here, the Arizona measure has instead been hitched to the emotionally charged eminent-domain issue. Similar strategies are being used in several states throughout the West.

Critics call it a classic bait-and-switch. "There are two issues here," says Scotty Johnson, with Defenders of Wildlife in Tucson. "There's the eminent-domain issue, which is a very separate issue from the property-rights issues. At a national level, there are attempts to bring these two together, to confuse the voters."

Even a former worker with the Tucson signature-gathering crew describes the petition as deceptive. "It was designed so that all that most people see is the eminent-domain stuff," says the woman, who asked not to be identified. "It's only when you go into further that you see all the land-use restrictions."

Tucson's drive was headquartered close to where I was standing, in the former Biblio bookstore on Congress Street. So I popped in to take a peek. When I entered their offices, however, staffers sitting at long banquet tables refused to talk. When I attempted to question petition gatherers mingling around the curb, a woman trotted out and ordered them inside. She then summoned a pair of police officers from across the street.

The unnamed, former petition-passer says she faced the same stonewalling. "I asked my trainer several times, 'Who's paying for this?' And she wouldn't tell me. Or she would mentioned five or six sources that were completely different from one another."

In fact, the petitioners were working for a contract organization called National Voter Outreach, and funds for that work were largely provided by a murky, Chicago-based group called Americans for Limited Government. According to its latest filings with the Arizona Secretary of State's office, AZ HOPE has received $827,000 in contributions from the Chicago group--including hundreds of thousands in the last couple of months.

Heather Wilhelm, a spokeswoman with Americans for Limited Government, says her organization just wants to lend a hand. "We're here to help out local groups. I think the Kelo (decision) was a wake-up call for everyone around America that property rights are on shaky ground. So we have people from around the country e-mailing us for help. We're proud of what they're doing on the ground there in Arizona, and we're happy to help them out."

But despite the cash inflow to Arizona, it's seemingly impossible to know who funds Americans for Limited Government. Bloggers have linked the group to scandal-tainted former Texas Rep. Tom DeLay, and to right-wing activist Grover Norquist. However, Wilhelm will only say her group receives contributions "from supporters across the country."

Nor is AZ HOPE required to list individual Americans for Limited Government donors, says Kevin Tyne, Arizona's deputy secretary of state. If an outside group "is giving a specific amount of money to a committee that's doing a ballot measure, there are no statutes on the books that I'm aware of that require (the group) to disclose where they get their money from."

Yet even with its preponderance of mysterious, out-of-state funds, AZ HOPE continues to posture as a grassroots effort. The group's executive director, Lori Klein, says that Americans for Limited Government "has been our main (funding) source for getting on the ballot. But all the rest of the money we need to run the campaign will be raised locally."

But "locally" can mean many things. For example, Oregon's similar takings measure--deceptively titled the "Family Farm Preservation" act--actually received no financial backing from small farmers. According to The Washington Post, that effort was instead bankrolled by timber and real estate corporations, both aiming for a windfall when the new law opened more land for development. Observers say it's likely that Arizona's Private Property Protection Act will receive the same type of backing from commercial interests with everything to gain from its passage.

Sandy Bahr tracks the Arizona Legislature for the Sierra Club, and she says the eminent-domain notion first circulated among lawmakers. At one point, she says, legislators considered sending it straight to the ballot as a referendum. "But they didn't have the votes in the House, partly because of the regulatory-takings language."

So instead, it went to the petition effort that she considers deceptive. "A lot of people hear that it's to protect the little guy," Bahr says, "and they just go ahead and sign it."

Back on Sixth and Congress, however, the only little guys being helped by this measure are those earning cash to brave the summer heat.

More by Tim Vanderpool

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