The public deserves an informed debate and discussion about eminent domain. While some would have you believe this is a simple, black-and-white issue for our state, cities and towns and property owners, they are leaving out important pieces of information that all Iowans have a right to know. I have worked hard on this issue to try to understand the balance between the rights of property owners and the opportunities that some communities are trying to create for themselves.
The United States Supreme Court caused a real uproar last year when it confirmed the ability of the government to use eminent domain for economic development purposes. Many states sought appropriate restrictions on the use of the power and rightfully so. In doing so they sought to strike the right balance between proper restrictions and economic opportunity.
Years ago Iowa struck a balance between the need to protect the arbitrary taking of private property and the common good that can be served by projects that create jobs or provide valuable infrastructure. The legislature created an elaborate process for the taking of property under limited circumstances complete with a requirement for paying fair market value for any property taken and appeal rights if property owners were not satisfied.
In light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, the Iowa legislature this year attempted to draft new legislation to strengthen that process, but during the crafting of the bill the dilemma of striking a proper balance between restrictions and economic opportunity surfaced in a real way.
The initial draft of the legislation fixed July 1, 2006 as the start date when new restrictions would go into effect. As the legislation moved its way through the process the community of Clinton raised objections. The start date and some of the restrictions the legislature proposed would prohibit them from building a new $280 million plant and creating over 100 good paying jobs.
Leaders in Clinton and the surrounding area urged the legislature to move the start date so their project could move forward. The legislature had to choose between restrictions and opportunity. When confronted with that choice the legislators chose opportunity and delayed the implementation date to October 1, 2006.
I think the legislature made the right decision in this instance. The new plant will be a significant boon to Clinton. But they forgot to think about all of the other “Clinton’s” who are trying to create and retain good paying jobs and offer economic hope to their citizens.
When the bill came to me for signature I faced the same choice that the legislature did, but on larger scale. I had to think about the entire state and the affect this legislation would have on projects in Dyserville, Burlington, Pella and who knows how many others down the road. Should I sign a law knowing that other projects and jobs important to communities and the common good would be lost or veto the legislation and urge legislators to work with me to strike a better balance?
In essence, I made the same choice as the legislature and vetoed the bill while offering to work with them to strike a better balance. Some in the legislature were willing to do so while others wanted to attempt to override my veto in a special legislative session.
Since I took action on this bill, I regret that there has been a lot of overblown political rhetoric and not enough debate on the substance of the issue. As public officials our job is to find solutions and in this case that means passing an eminent domain bill that protects both private property rights and job growth in our state.
To that end, I will be offering eminent domain legislation this week that I hope legislators will take a serious look at as they come back into special session. Putting all of the rhetoric and campaigning aside, I think legislators will see what I am offering to be very similar to the bill they passed with a few exceptions that allow us to better protect property rights and job growth.
I continue to stand ready to work with legislators to improve the law so we can protect the property rights of homeowners and others and maintain the opportunity for economic growth for Iowa communities. With hard work we can achieve both.
Tom Vilsack is governor of Iowa