By Bobby Harrison | NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Initiative 31, which would prohibit the government from taking private property for the use of another private entity, is on Tuesday’s ballot because Gov. Haley Barbour vetoed legislation in March 2009 that would have done the same.
After that veto, the Mississippi Farm Bureau, led by then-President David Waide of West Point, began the effort to garner the approximately 90,000 signatures of registered voters needed to place it on the ballot.
“We feel this is a private property rights state,” said Randy Knight of Pelahatchie, the current president of Farm Bureau, a 200,000-member organization that supports and advocates for the state’s farmers. “We feel that still means something …
“We understand that eminent domain has a place for roads, schools, bridges. We don’t believe it has a place to take your land for economic development.”
Knight and supporters of the initiative said the acquiring of land for economic development purposes should consist “of a willing seller and a willing buyer.”
The Republican Barbour vetoed the legislation in 2009 because, he said, “It would do more damage to job creation and economic development than any government action since Mississippi rightfully began trying to balance agriculture with industry in 1935.”
If the proposal had been the law, Barbour said it would have been difficult or impossible for the state to recruit Toyota to Blue Springs, Nissan to Jackson or facilities along the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.
In developing the Wellspring site for Toyota, eminent domain – the government taking of property – was used to acquire some land that was owned by a church that had been abandoned and to deal with some mineral rights issues.
Ron Ardridge, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, who worked on the initiative with Farm Bureau, said there are provisions in the proposal to deal with abandoned property, such as the land owned by the church. He said the Legislature could have worked out another method to deal with the mineral rights issues.
Chis Rogers, a Tupelo appraiser, served as chair of Tupelo Redevelopment Agency, which converted the 50 acres that once served as the home for the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show into Fairpark, a commercial/residential development near downtown Tupelo.
If Initiative 31 had been in place, Rogers said, “I don’t believe Fairpark would have been able to happen. Fairpark has been very successful” in cleaning up an underutilized and partially blighted area of the city.
Rogers said eminent domain was used for about 10 properties along Main and Commerce streets that were not part of the fairgrounds land, but were adjacent and were needed for the development. He said three of those cases went to court.
The actual cases of governments in Mississippi taking private property for the use of another private entity are rare. In 2001-02 when locating Nissan near Canton, the state was in the process of using eminent domain to deal with a family who was unwilling to sell to the auto manufacturer. Aldridge and others said the state found another solution and left the family’s land alone out of fear that the government would lose the eminent domain case before the Mississippi Supreme Court.
But since that case, Aldridge said the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Kelo case in New London, Conn. In that case, the nation’s highest court gave the city of New Haven the right to take property for the use of another private entity.
The court, though, said states could pass legislation to take away from government the authority to take private land for economic development purposes.
Since that 2005 ruling, the Farm Bureau said 43 states have adopted language similar to what Mississippians will vote on Tuesday.
Farm Bureau cites a 2008 study from the Institute of Justice, a national civil liberties group, that maintains “there appears to be no negative consequences from eminent domain reform.”
But state Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, said he sees no reason to pass the initiative because abuse does not appear to be occurring in Mississippi. He said passing the initiative will take an economic development tool away from the state.
Rogers, who said he sees both sides of the issue, said, “Abuse is abuse. I have not seen that happen in Mississippi,” and he added he has been involved in numerous appraisals dealing with governmental entities.
Leland Speed, the director of the Mississippi Development Authority, has said if the initiative passes he will challenge it in court because it amends the state’s Bill of Rights, which is prohibited through the initiative process. Eminent domain is in the bill of rights.
Farm Bureau officials have said that using language saying land taken by governments cannot be used for 10 years for economic development sidesteps the issue of amending the Bill of Rights.