State House, Senate pass separate eminent-domain bills

February 12, 2009

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JACKSON -- The House and Senate have overwhelmingly passed separate versions of bills restricting government takeovers of private property, but Gov. Haley Barbour says the legislation would be a "major impediment" to luring industries that need land. 

 

"We actually have never used eminent domain to get property to use to locate an industry here," said Joe Higgins, chief executive officer of the Columbus-Lowndes Development Link. "I''m not going to sit here and tell you that we have not made it known that we could use eminent domain if we had to. I think there have been times that landowners may have been a little easier to deal with after they knew eminent domain was an option. 

 

"But a local landowner has never just slammed the door in our face," Higgins added. "The board of supervisors are actually the ones who authorize the use of eminent domain, and they are very conscious of landowner rights. Overall, we have always treated the landowners right." 

 

The Senate voted 50-0 Tuesday for its legislation. The House passed its version Friday 116-6. They''ll attempt to work out differences and pass final versions later. 

 

The legislation is in response to a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision letting governments take private property for commercial developments. 

 

Mississippi lawmakers want to make sure state and local governments can''t force landowners to sell their properties so an industry can locate there. 

 

"This is a constitutional protection ..., the right of private property," said Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, the most vocal advocate of Senate Bill 2230''s passage Tuesday. 

 

He argued Mississippi has plenty of vacant space readily available to industries in need. 

 

"The land is here. Why do we need to take some poor farmer''s land?" McDaniel said. 

 

The Senate bill says government''s eminent-domain power can''t be used to buy private property to enhance tax revenues by turning it over to commercial developers. The Senate did attach an exception for the Toyota plant being built near Tupelo, where there could be properties the government must force owners to sell for auto-plant suppliers to locate near the facility.  

 

An amendment to the bill, which later failed, would have allowed governments to use eminent domain for major economic development projects such as "your Toyota plants, your Nissan plants and your Paccar plants, for example," Higgins said. 

 

Higgins said that he and other economic developers would rather the law stay the way it is, but if it were changed, they would rather have had the major-project amendment included.  

 

Barbour, a Republican, has argued against restricting government''s ability to take land in the name of economic development. 

 

"If the bill that passed the Senate today were to become law, it would be a major impediment to Mississippi''s job creation efforts," the governor said in a statement he issued Tuesday. "Toyota would not be coming to Mississippi if this had been the law in 2007, and the senators recognized that fact by an amendment they included in the bill." 

 

However, the Senate on Tuesday, in a 33-14 vote, rejected another provision that would''ve allowed government to take private property for other large industries in need of land. 

 

Senate Economic Development Chairman Walter Michel, R-Jackson, said governments must retain the option they''ve had to force reluctant landowners to sell if an industry wants their property. 

 

"If we hadn''t had this economic development tool, we probably would have said goodbye to Paccar, SeverCorr (now Severstal) and Toyota," said Michel, referring to the truck-engine plant and steel mill in Lowndes County the state has lured in recent years, along with the automaker. 

 

The bill adopted by the Senate could be vetoed by Barbour. However, the House-passed legislation is a proposed constitutional amendment that would bypass the governor and go directly to voters for their ratification or rejection. House Concurrent Resolution 33 calls for a November 2010 referendum on the constitutional amendment. 

 

The Senate will consider the House measure and the House will consider the Senate bill to determine if final legislation is passed. 

 

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that economic development can be considered a lawful public purpose for government''s eminent-domain power. The court did say, however, that states can place restrictions on this land-taking power. 

 

In response to the ruling, 39 states have enacted legislation or passed ballot measures to restrict the use of eminent domain, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

 

The Mississippi House and Senate since 2006 have passed such measures, but they died because legislators couldn''t agree on a final version. 

 

All area senators and representatives have voted for this year''s legislation to restrict eminent domain. 

 

Staff writer Neal Wagner contributed to this story.