Legislators give wrap-up rap on how they did: Johnson County (KS) Sun, 6/9/05

By Jack "Miles" Ventimiglia

Area lawmakers discussed information affecting business during a legislative session wrap-up June 2 at the Overland Park Convention Center.

Rep. Ed O'Malley from northeast Johnson County and Sen. John Vratil, Overland Park, reviewed the session for about 115 Lathrop & Gage employees and others.

"We're pleased to come home and report to you that we passed a lot of good bills and perhaps more importantly we didn't pass a lot of bad bills," Vratil said. "Sometimes what we don't do is more important than what we do do."

Eminent domain, under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, traditionally has served to allow government the right to take property for public purposes, such as building an interstate. The founders placed the item into the Constitution in response to the way the British arbitrarily seized public property.

In recent times, local governments, including in Johnson County, have used eminent domain to transfer private land from one private person to another for economic development. The rationale for this use of public power for private gain has been that the public could benefit in ways such as increased tax revenues.

Such uses have drawn criticism in Kansas. The government took land from some residents in neighboring Wyandotte County to build the Kansas Speedway. In Johnson County, the Roeland Park City Council voted last year to condemn 23 acres already used by some businesses to draw new business.

"If you own a business, it's your business, and you shouldn't have to sell it unless you want to," Sen. Kay O'Connor said at the time.

O'Connor and others across the nation have shared similar views about government power being used to take private land. The concern led to the U.S. Supreme Court last year taking the case of Susette Kelo v. New London, Conn.

In the case, Kelo and others opposed giving up their houses so that New London could attract development. In supporting condemnation, the Connecticut Supreme Court relied on a precedent-setting ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court that supported development as a good reason for eminent domain. However, the high court in Michigan later reversed itself.

The reversal and more than 10,000 cases of eminent domain nationally set the stage for the U.S. Supreme Court, which could rule any day.

Against that backdrop, eminent domain as a development tool may be in jeopardy in Kansas, O'Malley said.

"Kansas is one of only seven states that allow eminent domain to be used for what would be private economic development," he told the audience. "Many of us were worried that there would be (state) legislators who would try to make a quick fix and would not allow something like that to take place. Of course, without something like that, we would never have the Speedway, we would not have a number of wonderful developments that we have in this area and throughout the state."

A growing number of people seek restrictions, Vratil said.

"For at least two years, the authority of cities and counties to condemn property for economic development purposes has been under attack, and for some good reasons, because some of our cities and counties have not used that eminent domain authority wisely," Vratil said.

Efforts to limit eminent domain could return next session, he said.

"I have a growing concern that our ability to do that in the future may be in jeopardy," Vratil said.

The Johnson County Sun: www.zwire.com