Ownership of private property is a basic tenet of the American way. Eminent domain is the taking of property from its owner, by the government. These two phenomena have co-existed in natural tension for years.
In New Mexico, there are allowances within state law for eminent domain that address the safety of the citizens. There are also allowances within the law that border on greed.
Here's an example of the use of eminent domain for public safety: When a house is abandoned and falling in and the affected municipality has exhausted all avenues to contact the absentee owners and request the property be repaired or structure removed a municipal government can follow a legal process to take that lot and structure and proceed to make it safer.
But a darker use of eminent domain is emerging. And, in New Mexico, Rep. Richard Cheney, R-Farmington, is trying to do something about it. Cheney introduced House Bill 746 in the most recent legislative session. He was trying to address the use of eminent domain for greed in the name of progress.
His wording was brief:
"The state or a local public body shall not condemn private property if the taking is to promote private or commercial development and title to the property is transferred to another private entity within five years following condemnation of the property."
This bill would have prevented a municipality from, for example, condemning a working farm or ranch, taking it by eminent domain and then handing it to a private developer to build opulent showplaces or a new mega mall. As hard as it is to believe, New Mexico's laws currently support this kind of action.
While Rep. Cheney tried to stop just such takings, a review by New Mexico's Department of Finance and Administration analyzed the implications of the bill during the session and reported that "The promotion of Economic Development, even if it means allowing public purpose to be advanced through transferring title of private property to another private entity, which HB746 prohibits, is a long standing though unused power of New Mexico municipalities. Eminent domain has been a long-standing tool in the economic toolbox. While it may be a last resort, its presence enables marketplace-set levels of just compensation to rule, not exorbitant or unreasonable rates that can prevent community desired development or redevelopment from occurring."
In simpler terms, it means that if the town leaders want Mr. Smith's 640-acre ranch at the edge of town for high-class homes or a snazzy new strip mall, they can take it for fair market value even if he doesn't want to sell it at any price.
Now, the city would certainly benefit from those new homes or storefronts through local property tax, gross receipts tax and increased population. The only people really squashed in this deal are Mr. Smith, Mrs. Smith and their heirs. While the "Smith Ranch" hypothetical scenario is not imminent in the Carlsbad area, it's certain to happen elsewhere in New Mexico given the enormous push this governor has made for economic development.
The New Mexico Legislature, through the democratic process this country was built on, rightly shared Rep. Cheney's concerns and tried to remove the use of eminent domain to move land from owner to private economic developer. Then, Gov. Bill Richardson vetoed the bill.
That's a disgrace. The use of eminent domain for the benefit of a few private individuals getting wealthy on something they couldn't acquire on the open market is just plain wrong no matter what kind of trickle down economics are prophesied.
When the Supreme Court recently supported this type of taking, it was shocking. Many states have responded to the public outcry, just like the New Mexico Legislature did.
With Richardson's veto of HB 746 comes a shameful erosion of our founding values in the Land of Enchantment.
Our forefathers who came to this country and settled this land to avoid just such government abuses must be rolling over in their graves. Let's hope the bill is revived in veto-proof fashion in the 2007 session.