Eminent domain bills all but dead in Annapolis: Maryland Business Gazette (Annapolis MD), 3/29/06

Proponents hold out hope that some bill will get through the legislature

By Douglas Tallman

Eminent domain reform, which had been a top priority for Republicans and at least two business groups, appears all but dead in the 2006 [Maryland] General Assembly session.

A Senate bill was pulled from voting Friday. Because of the Senate action, the House did the same thing with that chamber’s measure.

Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, who was ushering the bill through floor votes, refused Monday to admit defeat.

"The one way this could come out is if colleagues recognize we can make some possible progress with half a loaf as opposed to a full loaf,” said Garagiola (D-Dist. 15) of Germantown.

Although senators and delegates are far apart on some points of the bill, both would increase compensation for property taken by government agencies and offer greater protections to farmland.

"I really think the residents of Maryland have lost an opportunity to see their property protected,” said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman (R-Dist. 9) of West Friendship.

Kittleman had led an effort to institute a constitutional ban on using the government’s power of condemnation for economic development.

The effort, fueled by the Republican caucus, gained some converts among Democrats. Rather than face a vote on a constitutional amendment, which would need voter approval, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee pulled the measure for preliminary votes on the Senate floor.

The amendment would need only a simple majority to pass. But a constitutional ban would need a three-fifths majority, or 29 votes, to pass the Senate.

"I think if we could get the 24 votes to get it as a constitutional amendment, then I don’t think it would have been that hard to get the five more votes,” Kittleman said.

But Garagiola said senators would have to agree to put aside the push for a constitutional amendment for the committee to allow the floor votes to proceed.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, whose Environmental Matters Committee was handling eminent domain reform in the House, had been critical of several provisions of the Senate bill. But she said she favored some reform.

"I believe we need to update our compensation for businesses and homeowners,” said McIntosh (D-Dist. 43) of Baltimore. "It’s upsetting and sad we lost the compensation piece in this bill.”

The interest in eminent domain follows last summer’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the right of New London, Conn., to seize property for a hotel and luxury apartments.

The ruling did not affect Maryland law, but a number of lawmakers saw the decision as a reason to rein in the power of the state — and of the cities and counties — to condemn property.

The National Federation of Independent Business and the Maryland Retailers Association pushed for condemnation reform.

NFIB’s State Director Ellen Valentino refused to believe all legislative avenues were exhausted.

"I’ve been to many dead bill signings before. This is an important issue,” Valentino said. "There’s still time to push a proposal through that helps small-business owners and property owners.”

Maryland Business Gazette: http://www.gazette.net