Paid “Volunteers” and Support for Property Rights Initiatives

Over at PropertyProf, Ben Barros has an interesting post up about I-933 that, among other things, takes issue with my skepticism about the broad base of support for these property rights initiatives. Ben says:

Eduardo observes that these initiatives are “often portrayed as the result of broad grassroots outrage at over-regulation,” going on to note the role of property-rights organizations in getting the initiatives on the ballot. While I’m well aware of the flaws in ballot initiative voting, property rights organizations don’t vote. It seems to me very likely that Measure 37 passed overwhelmingly over concerted opposition because Oregon voters were pissed. At a certain point, arguments that voters just didn’t understand what they were voting for just don’t hold up anymore.

Focusing just on the Washington case for the moment, it’s fair enough to point out that property rights advocacy groups don’t vote, but I question whether majority support down the road will really provide evidence that a broad swath of the electorate is “pissed,” as Ben puts it.

The highest barrier (and the one with the most potential to reveal intensity of grass-roots support) in the initiative process is the difficulty of gathering enough signatures to get on the ballot, and in cases where signature collectors are paid (as with I-933), that barrier is substantially weakened, as the Seattle Times notes. Once on the ballot, the ability to attract over 50% of the vote seems to me to be a poor indicator of intense feeling against land use regulation.

That said, I think Ben’s point is, in a broader sense, well taken. A well funded opposition ought to be able to educate the public about the costs of these sorts of laws, and majority support in the face of such opposition probably tells us something about the public’s views on the fairness of the land use regime, even if it doesn’t reveal a public that is intensely angry in the way that Ben and other commentators often suggest.

Most people do not get screwed by land use rules, but I think it’s probably true that a very small number of people can occasionally suffer disproportionate losses. These people usually end up front and center in the advertising campaigns in support of property rights initiatives. But even people who have not been dramatically harmed can, I think, sympathize with the plight of those who have. Enough empathy, and it’s fairly easy to see how a draconian law like Measure 37 can gain majority support in a relatively progressive state like Oregon (and majority support even in the very liberal Portland metro area).

While I am opposed to over-constitutionalizing the necessarily complicated determination of when property owners who have suffered losses due to regulation ought to be compensated, I think the risk of sparking support for a law like Measure 37 provides a good prudential reason for policy makers to be reasonable, and perhaps even generous, when determining whether (voluntarily) to offer compensation or regulatory relief — particularly with individual (as opposed to corporate) property owners. (And, for God’s sake, regulators, be nice to the 90 year old widows.) In any event, it will be interesting to see how all this plays out in Washington State in the fall.

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1 Response

  1. Ben Barros says:

    Eduardo, I agree, especially with the last paragraph. Regulators and policy makers have the ability to take the political momentum away from these initiatives by taking reasonable steps to be a bit more fair to property owners, especially ones likely to get a lot of play in the evening news. And I agree that most Oregon voters were probably not “pissed” in the sense that they were personally impacted by the regulation. Rather, I think that many Oregon voters thought that land-use regulation in their state had gotten out of hand, in part because of constant news coverage of controversial issues like urban growth boundaries.