Eminent domain is the law to beat: Bismark (ND) Tribune, 9/17/05

By Tom Rafferty

A citizens' petition drive to change North Dakota's eminent domain laws isn't stopping the Legislature from attacking the issue - even though it might be dead by the time lawmakers can fight it.

On Monday, the Judicial Process Committee will meet in the Capitol to study what can be done about a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in June that allows the government to take private property for economic development. The committee will discuss the issue at 1:30 p.m. in the Harvest Room during a meeting that is open to the public.

Former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, is leading a petition drive to let people vote on an amendment to the state constitution. The amendment would prohibit the government from taking land for economic development purposes.

Heitkamp said she hopes the committee endorses the initiative Monday.

"We think this is a pretty good working product," Heitkamp said.

Although the Legislature can study the issue, unless a special session is called, lawmakers wouldn't be able to vote on legislation targeting eminent domain until at least January 2007.

By that time the initiative could be a done deal.

Heitkamp said her goal is to start this month on getting the 25,688 signatures needed to put the issue to a vote, which could come in June 2006.

"The plan is we want to get this on the ballot as soon as possible," Heitkamp said.

Sen. Stan Lyson, R-Williston, chairman of the Judicial Process Committee, said the committee wants to make sure they find the best way to address the issue.

"We're not opposed to the initiative," Lyson said. "We want to know: Is it the right way to go?"

Sen. Bob Stenehjem, R-Bismarck, who is chairman of the Legislative Council, called for the study soon after the Supreme Court handed down its ruling. Stenehjem has said he thinks the issue would be best worked out during the Legislature, where citizens can testify during committee hearings.

Lyson said the study might find that the Legislature is best suited to address the issue.

Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck, said it's premature to say what the committee plans to do, but that the meeting will provide people an opportunity to testify about the initiative.

"The legislative process is a public forum," Klemin said. "The initiative petition is what some private individuals are doing."

Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, said it is a good idea for the Legislature to look at the issue because there's no guarantee the initiated measure will pass.

Triplett hasn't looked at the proposed constitutional amendment, but she is in favor of some change to prohibit taking land for economic development.

"I think the public needs some assurance of what the limits are," Triplett said.

The Legislature is not alone in its bid to change eminent domain laws.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., introduced a bill in Congress to bar the use of federal funds for economic development projects involving land taken through eminent domain. Dorgan said he used the North Dakota initiative as a model for his bill because he believes this issue must be addressed on both the state and federal levels. Dorgan is supporting the North Dakota initiative as well.

Heitkamp, who has teamed up with the North Dakota Landowners Association in the petition drive, said the group has put many hours into the amendment and has asked several organizations to provide input.

"The Legislature isn't always the best forum for the people," Heitkamp said.

Heitkamp, who lost a bid for governor against Republican John Hoeven in 2000, has said she is not using the initiated measure as a way to get back into politics.

Bismark Tribune: www.bismarcktribune.com