This is the sixth regular legislative session for Gov. Haley Barbour, and for all of that time the House has given him fits and the Senate has, for the most part, given him what he wanted.
That didn’t change on the eminent domain issue. What did change were the political dynamics.
Some of Barbour’s staunchest Republican allies in the Senate opposed him on eminent domain, while 11 of the 27 Senate Democrats stood with him. So while the governor got a familiar result – help from the Senate, which put the brakes on the House – it was a whole different scenario than usual. Even in the House, the usually rock-solid 47 Republican voting bloc crumbled on the issue.
Both the House and Senate had overwhelmingly passed a bill prohibiting government from forcing the sale of someone’s land for use by other private interests. Only three House members and no senators voted against it. Populist sentiment against the idea of government forcing somebody off their property, even at a fair market price, for reasons other than government projects like road or school construction, couldn’t be any stronger than those vote totals suggest.
But Barbour – as well as the state’s business leaders and economic development professionals – see eminent domain is an essential tool to attract mega-projects like Toyota that require cobbling together multiple pieces of land and in which one holdout landowner has the potential to squelch the whole thing. The greater public good of those private-sector projects justifies using eminent domain as a last resort, they argue.
So Barbour vetoed a bill that had passed the entire Legislature virtually unanimously and then went to work to turn around the result. Even for someone with Barbour’s legendary political skills, that was a tall order, but he managed to pull it off.
The House – including a big chunk of Republicans – ignored his arguments and voted to override the veto, so the governor found himself lobbying senators who, to put it mildly, would not ordinarily be his best political friends. He convinced 11 Democrats to join 11 Republicans in opposing an override of the veto. They said he convinced them of the veracity of his argument that eminent domain was a necessary tool for job creation and that Mississippi would be at a major disadvantage without it.
With the Senate’s action, Barbour still has not had a veto that failed to stand since he became governor in January 2004.
This issue that he turned around so adroitly is quintessentially Barbour. While he now has the misfortune of presiding over a severe recession and high unemployment in Mississippi – and probably getting blamed for it by some future Democratic candidate, as he blamed his predecessor Ronnie Musgrove for the last national economic downturn – Barbour has nonetheless excelled in the economic development game. He has credibility when he says the big projects like Toyota and Nissan would not have materialized without the availability – if not the use – of eminent domain.
Additionally, this issue is one where there is little if any political calculation by Barbour. He certainly doesn’t stand to gain anything politically by his stance, except to further solidify his standing among the state’s top business and economic development leaders, who are already his strongest supporters anyway.
That Barbour is more of an old-fashioned business-oriented Republican than the newer breed of populist, cultural conservative in the GOP has long been evident, and there is no clearer statement of that than the eminent domain issue and the split it has engendered in the Republican legislative ranks.
One could even make an argument that his stance on eminent domain isn’t conservative – at least from a small-government standpoint. But when it comes to economic development, the separation of business and state ceased to exist long ago, even for otherwise conservative Republican governors.
Eminent domain may still yet face the populist tide through Mississippi’s little used initiative process, or there may be legislation that exempts big projects from restrictions and that manages to pass gubernatorial muster. In the meantime, Haley Barbour has pulled yet another political rabbit out of a hat that seems never to go empty, and this one’s got a new set of ears.
Lloyd Gray is editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at 678-1579 or email@example.com.