By Pat Anderson, Minnesota State Auditor
After years of experience in and around local government, I have firsthand knowledge of the extent of local government power. As the Mayor of Eagan, I had the opportunity to help determine the development of a rapidly growing community. And now as State Auditor, I oversee the finances of all local units of government in the state to make sure their actions conform to the powers given to them in the law.
The actions of city councils, county boards and school boards determine everything from the way land in your community is used, the location and width of the roads you drive on, and the class size and curriculum of your public schools.
I believe that most governmental decisions should be made locally rather than at the state or federal level. Governments that are close to the people they serve are best suited to deal with local problems. Local control also makes it easier for citizens to voice their opinions and to hold elected officials accountable.
While the merits of local control are undeniable, any government can abuse its powers. With this fact in mind, our founding fathers adopted the Bill of Rights to protect individual's rights from government intrusion. Unfortunately, following the Supreme Court's recent ruling in Kelo vs. New London, one of those rights, as it has historically been understood, no longer exists.
The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution allows governments to take private property for "public use" as long as just compensation is provided. Since our country's founding, the courts have interpreted this amendment to allow governments to take private property for public facilities — roads, parks, government buildings, etc. In the New London case, however, the Supreme Court ruled that local governments may condemn non-blighted private property and take it to make way for other private landowners as part of an economic development plan.
Since the Fifth Amendment is no longer interpreted to protect your private property rights from government takings, your city can now force you to sell your home at a price it determines to be fair. Your only choice is to watch the bulldozers come in and to begin looking for a new home.
The decision is difficult to square with the American tradition of protecting individual rights. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a court decision that could have more harmful effects on the rights of average citizens, the poor and the politically powerless. Revenue-hungry governments can now team up with revenue-hungry big business to bulldoze the homes of average citizens, whose Fifth Amendment protections no longer exist. The Kelo decision is one more example of Americans being forced to surrender their individual rights to ever increasing government power.
Property rights advocates around the country were rightly outraged by this decision.
The backlash to the court decision is widespread and includes efforts at the national and state level. Sen. John Cornyn has introduced a bill that would prohibit federal monies from going to state and local governments that use eminent domain for economic development.
At the state level, a constitutional amendment has been introduced in the Texas state legislature that would ban the use of eminent domain to support private interests. The governors of Georgia and Missouri and legislators in Florida, Oklahoma and New Hampshire have created committees to review eminent domain practice in their states. Movements to restrict the use of eminent domain have cropped up everywhere from New Jersey to Alaska.
It is time for Minnesota to join these other states in acting to restore some fairness to government's eminent domain powers. The Legislature should start by prohibiting local governments from taking property solely for the purpose of increasing their tax revenues.
I am a strong believer in Minnesota's tradition of local control and prefer that most power be exercised at the local level. Fundamental freedoms like property rights, however, are so sacrosanct they must be safeguarded from any government usurpation.
When the courts overreach, it is up to the citizens and our representatives in the legislative branch to secure our rights. Because the Supreme Court has failed, the Minnesota Legislature must act. Full property rights, including protection from eminent domain for non-public uses, should be restored to Minnesotans.
The Pilot-Independent: www.walkermn.com