Legislature works to restrict eminent domain usage: Jackson MS Clarion Ledger, 2/11/07

Miss. House, Senate offer competing bills in response to court's ruling

By Julie Goodman

House Bill 300: Restricting eminent domain: http://www.clarionledger.com/assets/pdf/D061253210.PDF

House Bill 1209: Selling land taken by eminent domain: http://www.clarionledger.com/assets/pdf/D061311210.PDF

Senate Bill 2152: Restricting public use of eminent domain: http://www.clarionledger.com/assets/pdf/D061312210.PDF

A key roadblock has been removed from pending negotiations on eminent domain, but the issue - which pits private property rights against the forces of economic development - could be headed for heated debate with competing House and Senate bills.

Senate Bill 2152 says land can be taken for a direct public use, but a tax revenue increase or a general economic improvement does not count as direct public use.

"If that results, that's great, but that cannot be the justification for taking somebody's property," said Sen. Charlie Ross, R-Brandon, the bill's lead author.

House Bill 300, however, is more restrictive.

"My bill prohibits taking private property for private economic development purposes, period," said Rep. Jamie Franks, D-Mooreville, a co-author.

The bill makes exceptions for drainage and levee facilities, roads and bridges, and other public needs.

The controversy started after a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed private property to be taken for economic development purposes under Connecticut's statute. It stressed that states are not prohibited from placing their own restrictions on eminent domain.

States across the country reacted.

Larry Morandi, director of state policy research for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said 34 states have passed measures restricting the use of eminent domain for economic purposes.

Some of those states have since introduced additional legislation, and the remaining 16 states are considering eminent domain bills this year. Mississippi falls into that group of 16.

But proposals have varied greatly from state to state, with some passing only procedural measures and others limiting the use of eminent domain to projects such as highways, reservoirs and libraries, for example.

Morandi said he was surprised that Mississippi did not pass legislation last year but could not predict what the state would do this time around.

The bill died last year after the House and Senate could not agree on its provisions.

This year, the Senate's legislation is almost identical to its bill last year. But in the House, lawmakers got rid of a potential stumbling block by addressing a concern of farmers in Tishomingo County.

Under House Bill 1209, the state Inland Port Authority could sell property acquired through eminent domain back to its original owner or his or her children. That sale could happen if the property is not used or planned for use for a public purpose.

The proposal is meant to help Tishomingo County farmers who sold property years ago. Part of their property was taken for a railroad and then leased back to the farmers.

"The owners of the property who sold it to the Port Authority have been leasing it back, have been paying for all these many years for the property, but now it's not being used," Rep. Jim Barnett, R-Brookhaven, said recently on the House floor

At least one group, the Mississippi Association of Realtors, which represents more than 6,000 people in all phases of real estate industry, is not backing the House bill.

"We don't need to have such a dramatic response to this because protections are already in place," said Angela Cain, the association's chief executive officer. She said more restrictions would slow economic development, impeding job creation and homebuilding. The organization is backing the Senate bill.

Potentially complicating matters are the main proponents of each bill - who are running for the lieutenant governor's seat and could end up head-to-head in the general election.

Franks said he has not read Ross' bill this year, but said, "If it's what he had last year, it's a lot weaker," he said.

"The most fundamental right as an American citizen is to own property. And why should an American citizen or a citizen of Mississippi just be holding a piece of property until the government says, we're going to take it for someone else. That's wrong," he said.

Ross said he's not critical of the House proposal.

"I focus on ensuring that it's used for a direct public use rather than who it's transferred to. And I will say, the House bill and the Senate bill are both trying to get to the same place," he said.

Jackson MS Clarion Ledger: http://www.clarionledger.com