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Montana Puppeteer

Why a Kalispell lawyer bankrolled Idaho's newest ballot initiative

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KALISPELL -- When I walk into Duncan Scott's Kalispell law office, I'm surprised to hear a live Grateful Dead show coming from the speakers on his computer.

Turns out Scott, who looks similar to Gene Hackman circa 1980, was at the 1974 Missoula Dead show now playing.

It seems strange for a man who has a bullet-riddled John Kerry sign on his door, confesses to be somewhat of a gun nut and who, through an organization called America at its Best (AAIB), steers hundreds of thousands of dollars toward conservative ballot initiatives.

Early this year, Scott became part of AAIB's new board of directors, helping to take it from being a small group that focused on Virginia-specific issues to one with national objectives. The group is registered as a nonprofit, but in the 501 (c) 4 category. Unlike a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit, (c) 4s do not have to reveal funding sources, as they are not tax-exempt.

This year, AAIB has made $100,000 donations to ballot initiatives in Nebraska, Idaho and Michigan, and $190,000 in Missouri. The money has been used to fund signature-gathering efforts.

The two types of ballot initiatives AAIB's been supporting would cap state spending and put more stringent eminent domain controls on states. The latter is in reaction to the 2005 Kelo v. City of New London U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the government's right to use eminent domain to transfer land from one property owner to another in the name of economic development.

In some states AAIB also supported what Scott calls "Kelo plus," which, in addition to tightening eminent domain law, requires governments to compensate landowners when regulation reduces property value. This is commonly referred to as a change in "takings law."

Eric de Place, a senior research assistant with Seattle-based environment and smart-growth think-tank Sightline Institute, is critical of Kelo, but is most opposed to the takings law.

The takings law, de Place says, limits a community's input into how it grows, because many of them won't be able to afford to pay property owners when they need to make zoning changes. He says groups like Scott's have used eminent domain concerns as a "Trojan horse to introduce the regulatory takings law" in several states.

Laughing, Scott says "It was a long, strange trip" that lead him from Deadhead to behind-the-scenes initiative supporter.

Scott graduated from the University of Montana School of Law in 1982. His involvement in politics started there, when he coordinated the I-94 ballot initiative campaign, which would have abolished the quota system for beer and wine sales in Montana.

After that, Scott coordinated initiatives in Alaska and New Mexico; worked for Ron Marlenee, a Republican U.S. Representative from Montana; managed an Alaska Republican's gubernatorial campaign; and served one term as a Republican senator in the New Mexico state legislature.

Scott didn't seek a second term in New Mexico. He says, "I decided I could better serve conservative causes by suing liberals rather than serving with them."

Since then, he's served as legal representation for the Republican Party in Montana and New Mexico on redistricting; for Libertarian candidate Rick Jore in a disputed election in 2004 in Lake County; and for the Bush-Cheney Campaign in 2000 in various election-related suits.

His legislative experience also encouraged him to do more work on ballot initiatives, and become part of AAIB.

"I love the initiative process," he says. "I think legislators have a condescending view toward the average guy on the street, who I think is usually smarter than the average office-holder."

"I've seen legislators vote on bills they haven't read, while they were drunk,"he adds.

In the past, Scott has worked for ballot initiatives on the ground as a signature gatherer, has helped to write proposed initiatives, and has coordinated initiative campaigns. Now, with AAIB, he has moved behind the scenes, to the money side of initiatives.

So far, he notes, out of five initiative campaigns he has worked on in the past, all have made it onto a ballot, and four have passed.

"That's something I'm proud of," he says.

A version of this story originally appeared in The Missoula Independent

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