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September 22, 2006
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Transcript - September 22, 2006

BRACACCIO: Welcome to NOW...

There's a tactic flying under the radar in states across the country. It plays on voter anger at taxes and at corruption and waste in government spending. The idea is to cut back on what state governments spend — with deep cuts likely in health, education and social services. Eight states are considering ballot initiatives to shrink state government. But there's a real question over how "local' these initiatives are. A now investigation has found that some of these efforts are quietly getting big-time funding and support from people who live far, far away from the states whose budgets would come under the knife.

Senior correspondent Maria Hinojosa and producer William Brangham have our report.

HINOJOSA: The Manhattan potato festival in Manhattan, Montana went off like a charm. Families lined up for the parade, little boys got their spud guns and a bluegrass band kept folks happy. Most people also got a look at this huge pig. His name is Willy.

BUTCHER: Well Willie is no ordinary pig. He's got a great personality, has a heart of gold, wants to serve people, and Willie represents our state government.

HINOJOSA: Trevis Butcher has been carting this pig all over the state trying to convince his fellow citizens that Willy — or rather, Montana's state government — has a serious problem.

BUTCHER: Willie has one fatal flaw, and that is when he comes to the feed trough, he absolutely can't say no. Whatever you put in front of him, he'll devour. There's 200 million dollar bills here. Can I give you a little info on the initiative that's gonna be on the ballot in December?

HINOJOSA: Trevis Butcher wants to solve Willy's problem with a ballot initiative. He's actually promoting three initiatives this year — the first is a strict government spending cap, the second targets the state's land use rules and eminent domain , and the third makes it easier for people to recall judges from the bench. Montana is one of twenty four states that allow ballot initiatives like these... Love them or hate them, they're one the purest forms of local democracy in action. You get enough signatures on a petition, and your issue is put to the people on Election Day. On the surface, this feels like classic grassroots politics... Butcher even calls his group "Montanans in action". But there's more going on here. Butcher is part of a much larger national movement to shrink government and potentially slash social services. Similar initiatives have been proposed in at least eight other states. Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist once described the movement's goals this way: "I don't want to abolish government, i simply want to reduce it to the size where i can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub:" Back in Montana, it sure feels local, but how local is it? Butcher is definitely the man out in front, but we wanted to unravel what has become something of a mystery in Montana... who's really behind it all? For his part, Butcher thinks this talk about some 'grand strategy' is a bunch of bull.

BUTCHER: I really want to make this point very clear. And that is — We want, as Montanans — we want our fellow Montanans to have the opportunity to make the decision on these very important issues. I trust the voters. The voters are the ones that get to make this decision.

HINOJOSA: Butcher says if you want proof there's grassroots support for his initiatives, just look at the tens of thousands of Montanans who signed his petitions. But to get all those signatures, it turns out Butcher had to hire several out of state petition-gathering crews... Claudia Clifford says that's a rather unusual step for Montana politics. She's the director of the Montana chapter of aarp.

CLIFFORD: Primarily signature gathering in Montana for initiatives is done through volunteers. They may have some level of paid folks who help recruit the volunteers. But there's a real grassroots effort behind it.

HINOJOSA: Clifford's part of a large bipartisan group called "not in Montana" that formed to defeat Butcher's spending cap initiative. They point out that Montana already has a balanced budget amendment, so the cap is unnecessary. Everyone from the teachers union to the chamber of commerce. From firefighters to nurses have joined the criticism. Clifford believes that Butcher had to pay people to collect signatures because he didn't have real local support to begin with

CLIFFORD: That disturbs me, because it shows me that it— this isn't a Montana idea. And it may not have Montanans best interests

HINOJOSA: Her group is trying to convince voters that this spending cap will be a nightmare for Montana's economy. Their website and mailings are plastered with the story of what happened to Colorado, when that state passed a similar spending cap ten years ago. Clifford contends that Colorado's social services went into a steep decline. One study said that Colorado fell behind other states in things like education, health, and public safety partly as a result of this initiative. Last year, voters in Colorado said enough: they voted to suspend the initiative for five years.

CLIFFORD: It's a proven failure. And a frustration that there's not really a grassroots call for this. This is primarily some sort of out of state idea being imposed on us.

HINOJOSA: Those out of state signature gatherers were paid on a per signature basis. A lot of states forbid this practice fearing it encourages fraud. And that's exactly what attorney Mike Meloy believes happened here. Some petition workers claimed they'd helped gather a suspiciously high number of signatures. For example, one man swore that in just one week, he'd gathered over eight thousand signatures.

MELOY: He would have had to work 24 hours a day for seven days at the rate of one signature per minute. Ain't no way that someone could do that.

HINOJOSA: But the most serious allegations were that people were tricked into signing petitions. Listen to Joe Stauffer's story. Stauffer is a social worker in Helena. Earlier this summer, he stopped at this gas station to fill up his car.

STAUFFER: And as I just did that an African American gentleman came up and said— "Wonder if you'd be willing to sign a petition about eminent domain."

HINOJOSA: Stauffer says he'd heard some bad things about eminent domain before and so, he was interested.

STAUFFER: I said, "Okay. I'll— I'll sign that. Sounds good." So I signed my name on it and he said "Also, I'd like you to sign these, too. They're copies. We don't have any carbon paper. Would you sign the other two— the two copies?" And, I said, "You don't have any carbon?" He said, "No. They haven't got us any carbon." I said, "Okay."

HINOJOSA: The next day, one of Stauffer's colleagues told him the same thing had happened to her. But when she went to sign the other two copies, she was stunned. They weren't copies of the eminent domain petition they were petitions for those two other initiatives — the spending cap and the judicial recall. Stauffer went straight to the secretary of state's office and had his name taken off those petitions.

STAUFFER: I couldn't believe the nerve to go out here and do this and— and, you know, I could never do that, bec— I'm— I'm afraid I'd get discovered, you know. Somebody would look at those and say, "Well, gee, those are— those are for two separate Bills," you know, and so it just never dawned on me somebody would do that. I was really incensed. I'm a pretty trusting guy, and I thought, "Boy, that was a low down—" I just felt deceived, you know.

MELOY: I would guess the vast majority of the people that signed all three thought they were only signing one petition. But the signature gatherer got three signatures for the price of one. That kind of activity ought not be tolerated under any kind of election, under any kind of law.

HINOJOSA: Mike Meloy filed suit against Montanans in action, representing the groups that oppose the initiatives: the allegation? There was such widespread fraud that all the initiatives should be thrown off the November ballot. Trevis Butcher was called to testify.. (Willy the pig was parked outside the courthouse, where he got a couple of parking tickets.) Butcher testified he had no idea about any shady behavior, until he heard complaints from state officials.

BUTCHER: ...and they assured me that was not going on.

HINOJOSA: Now.. Those out of state petition gatherers cost Butcher's group a lot of money. They were paid over $600,000 for their work. At the hearing: Mike Meloy pressed Butcher on a key question: who was paying for all this?

BUTCHER: Our necessity to disclose our membership, I question the why that's pertinent to this case.

HINOJOSA: That kind of response makes Jonathan Motl furious. Motl is a public-interest attorney in Helena who has a lot of experience with the Montana initiative process. He argues that Montanans can't fairly weigh these initiatives without knowing who's behind them...

MOTL: The essence of direct democracy is 'Who is giving this message to me?' Do I respect the source? In the past, have they proved reliable? Have they kept the community interest in mind, rather than their own self interest?

So disclosure is the essence of direct democracy.

HINOJOSA: You're talking $600,000—to put your initiatives on the ballot in Montana. Where does the— that money come from, the 600,000—

BUTCHER: From major donors

HINOJOSA: Can you, can you name some of them?

BUTCHER: No. And— and the reason—

HINOJOSA: And why— why wouldn't you name them?

BUTCHER: Because our— our membership is a private list

HINOJOSA: It wasn't easy, but attorney Jonathan Motl managed to get a look at some of Butcher's internal paperwork... And there, he found some tantalizing clues about where Butcher's money might actually be coming from

MOTL: The documents that I reviewed were just the tip of the iceberg. They were snapshots at particular times. I believe there were many, many more documents out there.

HINOJOSA: These particular emails caught his eye. In them, Trevis Butcher requests an international routing number to wire some money out of Montana. Among the recipients was someone at a group called Americans for limited government. So who is Americans for limited government? They're a conservative advocacy group based out of Chicago. Dedicated to squeezing the size of government, changing property rights law, and promoting school choice. Their chairman is this man: a multi-millionaire New Yorker by the name of Howard Rich. Now, we haven't seen any cancelled checks to prove Howard Rich is paying for these Montana initiatives... Trevis Butcher admits they've received some logistical and other support but won't say much more. But here's where it gets really interesting: if you look at what's happening in other states, a clear money trail leads right back to Howard Rich and his groups. In Oklahoma, Americans for limited government gave a hundred thousand dollars to a group called "Oklahomans in action" who were pushing two initiatives — one a spending-cap, the other targeting eminent domain. Same thing in Missouri — Howard Rich's groups gave over two million dollars to a group called "Missourians in charge" — they too supported a spending cap and eminent domain initiative. And in Arizona — a group backing an eminent domain initiative — got over a million dollars, traceable straight to Howard Rich. In these three states, Rich's groups are responsible for almost 99% of the reported contributions. All told, there are at least 11 states across the country where Howard Rich seems to be involved. In each case, there's always a local group out front, but in most cases, when you follow the money, its Rich's groups who pay the bills. So who is Howard Rich? And what's he up to? We tried repeatedly to get Rich to talk with us about his involvement in all these different states. But he refused to do an interview with us. We went to his office in New York City. But no luck

WILFORE: We know very little about Howie Rich. Part because he won't talk to us publicly about his agenda and what his intent is.

HINOJOSA: Kristina Wilfore also has a lot of questions about Howard Rich. She's the executive director of the ballot initiative strategy center in Washington D.C — a group that promotes liberal and progressive ballot measures. These days, her group is trying to get voters across the country to realize that Howard Rich is one of the driving forces behind the measures they'll be voting on this fall. They've put up this website called 'Howie Rich exposed'

WILFORE: He's a real estate developer from New York City. He's a mega millionaire and he has ties to— pretty extreme libertarian movement. Was involved in the 1980— libertarian presidential campaign and has a lot of really Rich friends who don't also like to be talked about in— in the news

HINOJOSA: Its certainly no secret that there's a broad, well-funded movement to drastically dial back the role of government in America. And right wingers certainly doesn't hold a monopoly on using money to further their goals on a state-by-state basis. Liberal billionaire George Soros and others have funded almost a dozen ballot initiatives in recent years promoting ideas they support. But the overarching issue for many is disclosure.

HINOJOSA: "There's no answer"

WOMAN: Who's there?

HINOJOSA: its Maria Hinojosa from Now on PBS, we're looking for Howard Rich

WOMAN: he's not here right now. Tell you what, you should send an email

HINOJOSA: we did send an email but he

HINOJOSA: So far, Howard Rich has chosen to remain mostly silent about his involvement... downplaying the enormous financial role he's playing in these initiatives.

WILFORE: I believe they've gone through this great effort to hide their money and their agenda because it is so out of step with average Americans. It's— it's— if this was really about ideology, and they really just believed that they have a certain vision, and that vision is a legitimate debate, then let's have that debate.

HINOJOSA: Do you think that if you were to disclose who funds your organization, who's been funding the initiatives, the $600,000 that this has cost, do you think that if you disclose that, that that might influence how voters voted on these initiatives?

BUTCHER: What does it matter? I— I don't see that there's a relationship there. The reality is—

HINOJOSA: If it doesn't matter, then—

BUTCHER: —is the voters are the ones that get to do that.

HINOJOSA: But why not reveal who is helping to fund you? What is so controversial about revealing the names of foundations, or corporations that are national, and revealing it to your fellow Montanans? Why not?

BUTCHER: Why should we? You know? I mean, that's— that's the reality. The— the people of Montana are the ones that get to have the final say on— on anything that we're you know, talking about here today. They are the ones that are the judge and jury. They're the ones that get to make the decision. I trust the voters of Montana. The— the— the money is not the issue. It's the ability to make the decision that's the issue here. And we want Montanans to have the right to make those decisions.

HINOJOSA: But Montana's governor said the money is the issue. Democrat Brian Schweitzer said it was pretty clear to him who was funding all these initiatives, and he threw out a very public challenge.

SCHWEITZER: Mr. Big shot Rich from New York City; I challenge you to a debate in Montana. You come tell your story, and Montanans can size you up.

HINOJOSA: And then, just last week: the judge ruled on the petitions case. Citing a "pervasive and general pattern and practice of fraud... perpetrated by paid, out-of-state ... signature gatherers" he ruled that the three initiatives should be removed from Montana's ballot. Trevis Butcher is appealing... And it turns out that even the central icon for the Montana campaign — Willy the pig — is also from out of state. Seems that Willy came from Michigan. Here he is painted up with a different logo, promoting a different Howard-Rich initiative.

BRACACCIO: We have much much more on Mr. Rich, ballot initiatives and the coming elections over on our website. Check it out at PBS-dot-org. From Iraq and Iran to the economy and the forthcoming elections, it has been a busy week. I've spotted some things that need airing and so has Angus King. Angus is a regular here on NOW. He's also the former governor of Maine and one of those independents they like to grow up there, neither Republican nor Democrat.

BRANCACCIO: Angus, good to see you.

KING: Good to see you David, as always.

BRANCACCIO: The big political headline of the week has to be— CBS New York Times poll show that tw— only 25 percent of people polled approve of the job that Congress is doing.

KING: One of the lowest in ten, 15 years.

BRANCACCIO: So, I mean, a lot of people take that and conclude the obvious. Said, "Okay, it is a watershed moment in American history. Approval hasn't been this low since 1994 when Congress changed hands spectacularly. And it's gonna happen again."

KING: I don't think so. There are a couple of reasons. One is that Congress is pretty thoroughly gerrymandered. It used to be that you had a lot more competitive seats. Over the past ten years or so, the science of gerrymandering, battling computer programs as to allocating people among districts.

BRANCACCIO: I mean, you've seen this in action?

KING: Oh yeah. I've seen it. I've seen it in Maine. You got some very sharp lawyers who practically do nothing else. They have the computer programs. They figure out where everybody's living. They draw the lines. And the net result is that even in this year, where you have enormous— up— unrest and dissatisfaction. And everybody's talking about political year, possible change of congressional power. Probably around ten percent— ten percent of the House seats nationwide are competitive. You know h— one way you can tell that is where are the parties putting the money? And they're putting the money into, literally, ten, maybe 11 percent of the seats. So— there's really a kind of lock which is a little bit disturbing. Second point is that— this— this phenomenon of people expressing dissatisfaction with Congress, people never like Congress. But they always like their congressman. That's a very common observation.

BRANCACCIO: And that suggests to you that— these predictions of the wholesale change in Congress in a few weeks may be a little bit overdone?

KING: I think it's unlikely. It mi— it could happen. I'm not saying it couldn't. It's unlikely. But there's another piece of this polling that's really interesting that's unique— as far as I know in— in h— in polling history. Over the past 20, 30, 40 years, as one party goes down, the other party goes up. It's kind of a hydraulic effect. This year, the republicans are going down, but the r— democrats aren't going up. Very interesting phenomenon.

BRANCACCIO: You got any theory here?

KING: Well, I think people are pretty much fed up with the whole deal— is the— is the bottom line.

BRANCACCIO: But what happens if you're gerrymandered a district so sharply and so effectively that the competition is gone. What's the cost?

KING: Well, the cost is that it undermines the whole idea of— of our democracy. The House is supposed to be the people's house. And it reflects the will of the people. But, it's set up in such a way. It's wired in such a way that it— it— it won't do that. So you can have significant changes in public opinion, significant changes in views on issues. But by and large, it's not going to reflect itself in the House. Or at least it won't in the short-term. And that's really a— a kind of undermining of— of one of the principles of our system.

BRANCACCIO: Now you add to that partisan rancor. You know, the passionate people on each side that love to throw mud at the opposite side and not get together to solve issues. And you kind of have a real alienation from the political process.

KING: Well— here's a story and I— it may be apocryphal, but I've heard it so many times recently that I— I think it's true. Historically, the— the House of Representatives has had a softball game, Republicans versus Democrats. This year, they couldn't agree on the rules to have the softball game.

BRANCACCIO: Anywhere—

KING: When they can't play softball and they can't work together in any kind of collegiate way, we're in real trouble when it comes to solving problems.

BRANCACCIO: Alright, so how do we solve it?

KING: Well, I'm involved in a— in—. You asked, and I gotta disclose. There's a group that's been generated just in the last few months called Unity '08. And the whole idea is very straightforward. We wanna have an online convention, a national convention, if you will, open to any American voter to choose a unity ticket for president and vice-president in 2008. That is a Republican and a Democrat or a Democrat and a Republican.

And the idea is to try to cut through this morass of partisanship and polarization.

BRANCACCIO: So, not some sort of goofy online experiment? You could actually take the ticket generated in this online forum by this online convention and vote on election day—

KING: That's the— that's the whole idea. We're working now on ballot access. That's why we're starting two years early. 'Cause it's gonna— the— as you can imagine, the rules of getting on the ballot aren't simple. And we've— working with lawyers in Washington and all that kind of thing to figure out how we get on the ballot in all 50 states. This is not a— a fantasy. This is— this is— a direct effort to— to elect a president and a vice-president and try to move the country back toward the center.

BRANCACCIO: And to help electronically engineer some bi-partisanship.

KING: That's— the— exactly right. And— because now, if you think about it, we— the rest of us stand around and wait for the people of Iowa and— and New— New Hampshire, no disrespect, tell us who we get to vote for in November. Why not let everybody make that choice?

BRANCACCIO: Alright. Angus King, former governor of Maine, thank you.

KING: Always a pleasure.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.



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