Intimidation Politics
No fair spending fight.


Imagine that you love big government.

Perhaps you sleep in an oversized Che t-shirt, rest your head on an NPR pillowcase, and dream of progressive tax increases. Perhaps you’re a union boss or government employee, hoping for bigger benefits and a pay raise. Or, perhaps you’re just a sympathetic, non-political sort who thinks those small-government types sound really, really mean.

Then, one day, your nightmare arrives: an army of petitioners, gathering signatures for an initiative that would cap yearly state-spending growth. It is the sum of your fears, and if the petitioners succeed, the measure will go on the November ballot.

Worse yet, voters love the idea and just might put it through. So what do you do if people want to take charge of their government?

You bring out your lawyers — and, in some cases, your thugs — in an all-out effort to block the vote.

My group, Americans for Limited Government, is working with local activists in eight states to put spending cap initiatives on the 2006 ballot. Our measures would give taxpayers some control over state spending and stop out-of-control budget binges. This terrifies groups which have a lot to lose from serious spending reforms.

Across the country, lawsuits — frivolous, time-sucking, and money-wasting — are all the rage among the democracy-blocking set. In Maine, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Missouri, our partner groups have gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures — and they’ve also been slapped with legal challenges based on little more than language technicalities.

Lawsuits, however, are just the beginning. A showdown is brewing in Nevada, where the AFL-CIO and state teachers unions have put some muscle behind an intimidation campaign against the Tax and Spending Control campaign. Reportedly paid by the hour, these “blockers” physically surrounded petitioners while shouting, screaming, and chasing away potential signers. The situation escalated last week, with petitioners reduced to pleading for a restraining order from a Nevada judge, who promptly ordered preschool-style rules — “no touching, no yelling” — to return order to the streets.   

“Say you’re an elderly woman and you want to sign a petition — you don’t have a chance,” says Bob Adney, who is leading the spending-cap campaign. “And if you’re a guy who’s 6’4’’ and 300 pounds, quite frankly, you might not have a chance either. These guys are surrounding petitioners eight to one at times, and they’re not pulling punches.”

What happens in Vegas, alas, doesn’t always stay there. Our partners in Missouri, Montana, Michigan, and Oklahoma have faced similar intimidation tactics, often at the hands of local unions and, in particular, public-education unions. The goal is often to get petitioners kicked out of malls and other high-traffic areas, or even arrested — which is an interesting civics lesson indeed.

Lest you get too impressed with what local liberals can cook up at the coffee shop, however, you should know that these efforts are often well-organized, well-networked, and well-funded — sometimes on a national level. The Oregon Education Association, for instance, recently declared war on the state’s spending cap initiative. Meanwhile, the National Education Association has been doling out cash to similar causes for years. As the Wall Street Journal reported in January, the NEA spent $90 million dollars — $25 million of it in direct lobbying — supporting left-wing causes in 2005 alone.

In some cases, it’s the government that has become the ultimate democracy blocker. In Missouri, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, an apparent specialist in bureaucratic warfare, recently dismissed the signatures of 400,000 Missourians who wanted to vote on reforms this fall because of “pagination” issues. Our partner group, Missourians in Charge, has just announced that they will appeal the decision — and rumblings around the state suggest that they just might win.

“These people trying to block the vote all have vested interests in the current system,” says Mary Adams, who is leading the campaign for a Taxpayer Bill of Rights in Maine. “They’re afraid. They know that voters want these reforms. They know that if our measures make it to the ballot box, they’ll lose, and they’ll also lose a lot of their government-funded perks and special favors.”

Adams knows this from experience. Her petition has already been through the standard legal attack (from a longtime left-wing activist) and the courtroom wringer, all the way to the Maine supreme court. The good news: On May 4, after a long, drawn-out battle, she, and the people of Maine, won the right to vote on the proposal.

In states across the nation, thousands of activists are fighting for that same right, and they’re getting a tremendous response. Voters, it turns out, do want a say in state spending. They’re tired of government overspending and politics as usual, and they want issues to be decided in a voting booth, not in a courtroom.

As November approaches, expect more shenanigans and blocking attempts, but don’t expect these initiative campaigns to fold. Our partners across the country are dedicated to making sure that these important reforms get on the ballot. They’re dedicated to putting the people back in charge of state governments, and to making sure that it’s the voters and taxpayers, not the special interests, who are heard this November.

–Heather Wilhelm is a Phillips Foundation fellow and serves as the director of communications for Americans for Limited Government.