January 23, 2010



Billionaires abound
by Bruce Rodgers

The country’s anti-establishment mood seems to be at its highest since the anti-Vietnam War days. The election of a Republican on Ted Kennedy’s home turf of Massachusetts is but one indication. The heat likely will rise based on the recent Supreme Court decision — a 5-4 decision led by conservatives — giving the green light to corporate money domination of the campaign process. Sure, labor unions can play the money-buys-influence game, too, but less than 15 percent of the labor force is unionized. And for another perspective on the inequality of that ruling — when was the last time a labor union sought a tax break or a TIF (tax increment financing) for a development or the use of eminent domain?

Though the list is long for the sins of government, one that gets to ordinary citizens, particularly small business people, is the use of eminent domain. In another triumph for big money through a 5 to 4 decision — this time led by liberals — the Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. City of New London in 2005 that eminent domain could be used to transfer land from one private owner to another private owner to further economic development.

Municipalities across the metro area — from Wyandotte County for the tax-subsidized Kansas Speedway to Kansas City, MO for the tax-subsidized Power & Light District to smaller cities like Merriam, Shawnee and Sugar Creek — have used the power to drive property owners out so larger business concerns could attempt to fulfill their promises of growing a bigger economic pie. But many residents of those areas fought such government takings.

Johnson County resident Philip Klein documented many eminent domain fights over four and a half years, both locally and across Missouri, via video cam. Last year he released a documentary about such controversies, giving small property owners a voice. Begging for Billionaires has been shown across the Midwest and at various film festivals, winning awards. On Jan. 21, Begging for Billionaires had another screening at the Glenwood Arts in Overland Park.

As at an earlier screening, many of the property owners in the film that were affected by eminent domain decisions attended, including Penelope Marth who lost her home in Sugar Creek to a yet-to-be-built new development, Daryl Penner, whose family owns American Formal Wear, which was forced out by condemnation tied to building the Power & Light District, and former KCMO city councilman Richard Tolbert, who narrated the film. Their emotions still ran strong, reinforced by other citizens who attended and by representatives from the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity.

What was heard was both heartening and worrisome. Any time citizens get involved and speak their mind is good for democracy. But when it happens where accurate information eludes the dialogue, demagoguery can find an opening.

It’s probable not one person attending the screening thought eminent domain was a good thing for a community. Variations on “Taking away my rights and giving it to another” was a common refrain, possessing “God-given rights” another. One woman claimed the group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) was behind nonprofits seeking to use eminent domain and wondered why that wasn’t part of Klein’s film. Another woman was convinced the “government made a profit” by using eminent domain.

Both Klein, and Tolbert in the film, pointed out that eminent domain has a public benefit by seeking land for roads, schools and other public projects. Though one could argue the influence of well-heeled and connected developers influence public officials into using the power against small property owners, the villain that night was the government. Time and again “the government” in the form of a city council or some other elected body made the taking happen. Any discussion about how or why a private developer should be allowed to influence an elected body never materialized. Informing the group on the process of eminent domain wasn’t part of the discussion. Government was the bad guy, pure and simple.

Jim Mullins, field representative for Americans for Prosperity Kansas, helped keep the focus on the evils of government. Together with Derrick Sontag, a lobbyist for AFP KS, the men brought other topics into play. Sontag talked of just having “left Topeka” where school boards and school districts were trying to get the state’s sales tax raised by the legislature. Information concerning how the AFP felt about education funding in the state and on the state’s transportation plan was available, said Mullins to the screening audience. “The AFP trains people on what your rights are,” he added.

Apparently those rights include the right to smoke in a bar or restaurant. AFP KS backed opposition by the Kansas City Business Rights Coalition against the city’s smoking ban. The Texas AFP chapter called smoking a “property right.” AFP KS is helping sponsor the “Keeping Kansas Conservative Great American Forum” in Topeka on Jan. 29. Featured is Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher “Joe the Plumber” along with U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt and KS state Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook. AFP KS also coordinates screenings of the Not Evil Just Wrong documentary countering Al Gore’s position that climate change is upon us.

Two groups that are part of American for Prosperity, Patients United Now and Patients First, rallied in cities nationwide against health care reform. And AFP was one of the lead organizers of the Tax Day Tea Party protest in April of last year. The current president of the AFP, Tim Phillips, operated Century Strategies with Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition. Century Strategies worked with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to prevent stronger worker protections in South Pacific sweatshops. Century Strategies was said to have “excelled in launching fake grassroots groups known as Astroturf.”

AFP, with its headquarters in Washington DC, has received funding from Exxon, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Koch Family Foundations. Phillips told Rachel Maddow of MSNBC in an August 2009 interview that AFP is “happy to take corporate money.” Charles is cofounder of the Cato Institute and David help found the American for Prosperity Foundation, the lobbying arm of the AFP. Charles and David Koch oversee the Koch Family Foundations; both men are estimated to be worth $16 billion each.

While Klein’s Begging for Billionaires film truly was a grassroots effort, Americans for Prosperity is just backed and financed by billionaires.

Information and film clips from Begging for Billionaires can be found at www.beggingforbillionaires.com. American for Prosperity Kansas can be contacted at www.afpks.org.

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at publisher_editeKC@kcactive.com.