Eminent domain again before the legislature

By Scott Mooneyham | Feb 07, 2013

RALEIGH -- One of the stranger aspects of Republican control of the North Carolina legislature is how long it has taken GOP lawmakers to get around to something that, based on public sentiment and party ideology, ought to be a slam dunk.

It was seven years ago when Republican Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, then a member of the minority party in the legislature, first introduced a bill that would allow voters to amend the state constitution to bar local governments from using the power of condemnation for economic development purposes.

Stam filed that legislation soon after the landmark Kelo v. City of New London, Conn., decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the use of eminent domain for economic development purposes. (In that case, the city had condemned private homes to make way for a development being pursed by a private developer that was to include a pharmaceutical facility. After a company merger, the plans were abandoned. The land that was condemned is now a vacant lot.)

That year, 2006, Stam's bill went nowhere. In the years since, the state House passed some form of a proposed constitutional amendment to restrict the use of eminent domain for economic development purposes three times, with each vote passing by a wide margin. The legislation never moved in the state Senate.

Democrats controlled the legislature the first two times the measure cleared the House. On those two occasions, some speculated that Democratic leaders, in both chambers, knew that the legislation would never move in the Senate, but that a House vote would be good politics for House members on both sides of the aisle.

Those Democratic legislative leaders, particularly in the Senate, were sympathetic to arguments from municipal officials that the amendment could tie their hands regarding economic development. There were also utility firms and railroads, with their special condemnation powers, to think about. That was then. This is now.

Republicans are currently in their third year of control of the North Carolina General Assembly. Two years ago, the House again approved a proposed constitutional amendment to block government condemnations for economic development purposes. The Senate again failed to take up the legislation. Now, the House is at it again. A House committee recently approved a measure that would put the issue before voters in 2014. The full House is likely to approve the bill next week. As for the Senate, its course remains to be seen.

It is worth pointing out that governors cannot use veto power to block proposed constitutional amendments, so there was nothing to prevent the Senate from putting the measure on the ballot in 2012. Well, there is and was that little thing called their opinion. Perhaps that property rights stuff is good for campaign speeches and slogans, but doesn't jibe so well with some senators' notions of policy formation. Or, maybe some legislators just need some time to find their own ground to stand own. Let's hope it doesn't end up being condemned.

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