Wednesday, June 29, 2005

"Resolution may be little more than symbolic."

Measure seeks to limit power to take property

Some say the effort is strictly symbolic on lawmakers' part

June 29, 2005
By TIM EATON Austin Bureau
Scripps Howard News Service Copyright 2005

AUSTIN - Some lawmakers hope Gov. Rick Perry will expand the special session agenda so they can pass legislation to protect property owners in Texas.

Rep. Scott Campbell, R-San Angelo, and Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, have filed legislation that would amend the state Constitution to prohibit local governments from taking private property for economic development reasons.

House Joint Resolution 19 is a response to the recent 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling authorizing local governments to seize homes and businesses for economic development purposes.

Because it is a constitutional amendment, two-thirds of both legislative chambers and a majority of Texas voters would have to approve it.

''Protecting the private property rights of Texans is the most important role I can play in representing my constituents," Campbell said. "This outrageous decision by the Supreme Court could open doors that would cause our founding fathers to turn over in their graves."

But the resolution may be little more than symbolic.

Political subdivisions, such as city or county governments, still could exercise their eminent domain powers so long as economic development was not the primary reason, said Lynn Blais, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.

A local government could simply label economic development as the secondary purpose, Blais said.

Plus, she added, state and federal governments already have eminent domain powers.

"That language makes it unlikely to actually effectively change behavior," Blais said. "To me, it doesn't seem like it is going to have much effect."

Corte said he would be open to firming up the language so long as it did not stifle existing economic development programs.

The issue could be moot this special session, anyway.

Lawmakers won't be able to pass the property-rights legislation unless Perry expands the special session agenda. The governor called lawmakers into a 30-day special session on June 21 to address school funding and property tax cuts. He has said he may expand the topics if lawmakers complete the business at hand before the session ends.

Corte said the governor's office was non-committal about expanding the agenda but promised to look into it.

Campbell said recent incidents in Texas where governments have tried to take over private property exemplify the need for lawmakers to pass the joint resolution.

''This sort of thing should not be left in the hands of a few Supreme Court judges," Campbell said.

If the state-level effort flops, some hope remains for property owners upset with the Supreme Court's ruling.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, RTexas, filed legislation in Washington that would prohibit transfers of private property if federal funds were used - and if the transfer was for economic development.

"The power of eminent domain should not be used simply to further private economic development," Cornyn said.

Contact Tim Eatonat (512) 334-6642or

Scripps Howard News Service