Eminent domain issue on horizon

Published 1:13 am Sunday, October 3, 2010

In the national political realm, everyone seems to be worried about the mid-term elections next month.

Republican and Democrat strategists are scheming ways to make the other guys look bad in hopes of either holding onto the power or regaining it, depending on one’s red or blue status.

Great debate is being waged over whether or not the Taxed Enough Already (TEA) Party candidates will make a big impact on the results.

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And many Americans are watching closely to see if the tax cuts extended by the previous White House administration will be extended or not — and when the vote will be taken.

Interestingly, though, in Mississippi the biggest election issue may not hit the ballot until November 2011.

Lots of candidates will be on the ballot then — governor, legislators, county supervisors, etc.

But it’s not a candidate, but a series of words, that likely will make the biggest impact.

The Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation has petitioned to put a Constitutional amendment that would restrict the use of eminent domain doctrine on the 2011 ballot.

Although the secretary of state’s office is still working to verify the signatures on the petition are valid, it seems unlikely that any significant problems will prevent it from being on the ballot.

Eminent domain is one of those phrases that usually make us all cringe.

In simple terms, eminent domain is the right of a government to obtain property from a private individual in exchange for monetary compensation.

In the real world, however, the issue becomes wildly more complicated.

Since our nation’s earliest days, the military has had the right to obtain supplies — then horses, feed and the like — in times of war.

Most common today is the use of eminent domain to construct public projects — roadways, utilities, etc.

Increasingly, though, in recent years, the biggest fear among landowners isn’t that a new highway will come through their backyard.

Their bigger worry is that some new, whiz-bang economic development project will come to town and take away property.

And that’s where things really get murky. Is an economic develop project — even one as large as an auto manufacturing plant which may bring thousands of jobs — a good cause to allow the government to simply buy someone off their homestead?

The idea that the government could come in and take your house or your property just seems, well un-American.

It seems a little more palatable — maybe — if the project was clearly a public project — a new highway for example.

The issue isn’t new to Mississippi. The debate has being going on for years.

In 2009, Gov. Haley Barbour vetoed a bill that would have eliminated the use of eminent domain for private development projects.

He said the law was too restrictive and asked the legislature to consider a proposal that still clearly allowed use of eminent domain for public projects such as highways and utility construction needs.

Economic developers argue if all eminent domain is restricted, they will be hamstrung. Eminent domain use, they say, is needed to help take land disputes into court where they can be fairly judged.

One thing is clear: Mississippians should have a chance to express their opinions in November. Let’s just hope we all think through and try to understand the issue and not simply vote with our first, gut reaction.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.