Eminent domain bill faces Senate deadline: (Mobile AL) Press-register, 3/29/06

Property legislation may have to wait until 2007

By Bill Barrow

Any constitutional amendment changing Alabama's eminent domain law, which grants government entities the right to take private property for public benefit, likely must pass the state Senate today or wait until the 2007 legislative session.

Several senators predicted Tuesday that there is only slight hope of a deal on the complicated matter, which has been a subject of legislative maneuvering for weeks.

"The time is running short for that or any other bill," said Senate Rules Committee Chairman Jim Preuitt, D-Talladega, sponsor of one of several eminent domain proposals.

Under legislative rules, today is the last day of the maximum 30-day session that a bill may be sent from one chamber to the other without unanimous consent of the members. That allows just one lawmaker to keep a proposal from moving forward.

Preuitt has presided over several closed-door sessions with lobbyists and lawmakers in recent weeks attempting to hammer out a compromise version of the constitutional amendment. Any amendment would require three-fifths approval by each legislative chamber and then must be approved by a majority of voters in a statewide referendum.

The goal, Preuitt said, is to come up with a version that keeps government entities from using eminent domain to seize private property from one owner and transfer it to another, such as a private developer. The veteran lawmaker, whose committee sets the Senate agenda each day, also said he'll accept only a version that contains no loopholes allowing the government to abuse "blight" statutes in an effort to take property.

Preuitt and supporters of tighter restrictions cast their position as one of free-market property rights long enshrined in American history. Opponents, among them organizations representing municipal and county governments, say further limitations could hamper economic development. Mobile Mayor Sam Jones, the Mobile Chamber of Commerce and the Alabama State Port Authority are among those who oppose tighter restrictions.

The debate is the latest outgrowth of the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial 2005 decision in Kelo v. New London. In that case, 5-4 majority of justices declared it constitutionally permissible for a Connecticut town to seize private property for use by a private developer.

The court reasoned the increased tax revenues and overall economic growth met the intentions of "public use" spelled out in the eminent domain clause to the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But the court also stated explicitly that states are free to further restrict the practice.

Legislators last year made Alabama the first state to pass such restrictions, but property rights advocates, led by the Alabama Farmers Federation, have argued that the bill did not go far enough.

As an example, Preuitt cited Tuesday that it is still legal for a seizing entity to declare a broad area "blighted" and take even isolated, non-blighted parcels within that area. "We can't accept that," he said.

Senators adjourned early Tuesday evening, over Preuitt's objections, without taking up the issue. That could result in the death of several bills, said Preuitt, whose committee sets the upper chamber's agenda. He said he is not inclined to carry over his eminent domain proposal to get to other bills in the event of a protracted debate.

"If they are worried about their bills, they should have stayed and worked today," he said of his colleagues' adjournment vote.

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